Why don't Cincinnati homeless go to shelters?

CINCINNATI -- Why don't they just go to a shelter?

It's one of the most frequently asked questions in WCPO's social media comment sections and Feedback Friday calls since a tent city on Third Street first became the subject of local news coverage. Although Cincinnati officials and advocacy organizations such as Maslow's Army have successfully redirected many of the camp's former residents to drug rehabilitation facilities and shelters, some have chosen to move to other encampments across town.

By Wednesday night, Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters and the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition were locked in a courtroom battle over whether Deters and Cincinnati authorities could legally block homeless camps from some portions of the city.

So, why is it a struggle at all? Why can't all of Cincinnati's homeless people seek help from shelters?

"Most frequent, probably, is that people came into shelter, and they did something that got them barred out, such as they acted out violently toward shelter staff," Strategies to End Homelessness CEO Kevin Finn said. He added: "(Another reason) why people would be on the street rather than in the shelter is that they have a severe mental illness and their symptoms make it difficult for them to be in a congregate facility or, in the case of a substance abuse issue, they literally can't make it through the night without a drink or using."

People with certain convictions, a record of bad behavior at other shelters or substance abuse disorders might all be turned away from shelters not equipped to house them. Accepting a person convicted of sex crimes, for instance, could hamstring a shelter's ability to safely and effectively serve the growing number of families with children experiencing homelessness.

Finn said some restrictions might be dropped during the winter to prevent homeless individuals from freezing to death, but no such practice exists during the summer. 

Even individuals without records such as these might choose to remain on the street. A woman camping outside Jack Casino, a former EMT who identified herself only as Sunshine, said she and her husband of 11 years had unsuccessfully tried to enter a shelter together but learned they would have to live several miles apart because most shelters are single-sex facilities.

Other families without children could face the same challenge.

"We believe in family sticking together and closeness," Sunshine said. "We're in this together."

And, for now, being together means living on the street.

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