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Advocates for homeless seeking $1.2 million for hotel rooms during COVID-19 crisis

'We have to do it rapidly or else'
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Posted at 6:54 PM, Mar 24, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-24 19:10:39-04

Editor’s note: With our coronavirus coverage, our goal is not to alarm you but to equip you with the information you need. We will try to keep things in context and focus on helping you make decisions. See a list of resources and frequently asked questions here.

CINCINNATI -- For the hundreds of people who are homeless in Cincinnati and Hamilton County, it’s simply not possible to stay home to help prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.

The Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition and local shelter operators argue that makes people experiencing homelessness – and the entire community – less safe.

The coalition wants to raise roughly $1.2 million for 1,000 hotel rooms where people experiencing homelessness could stay for the next two weeks to avoid getting – and spreading -- the highly contagious COVID-19.

“This is not just a homelessness crisis. This is a public health crisis in Cincinnati,” said Dr. Bob Donovan, a physician with the Cincinnati Health Network who has cared for homeless patients for 30 years. “We must do something about this, and we must do something quickly because this will spread like wildfire. And we have to do it rapidly or else it’s going to be too late.”

Josh Spring, the Homeless Coalition’s executive director, first sounded the alarm in a March 19 letter to Cincinnati and Hamilton County officials.

In the letter, Spring wrote that it’s impossible for people in crowded, congregate homeless shelters to stay a safe distance apart from each other. He suggested that perhaps vacant apartments or empty residence halls at local colleges and universities could be used.

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Josh Spring, at microphone, speaks at a news conference March 24, 2020, while others wait at a safe distance.

But Spring said Tuesday that local college and university representatives have not been receptive to that solution. He said that there has been discussion about using the Duke Energy Convention Center to house people – similar to the way the Northern Kentucky Convention Center in Covington is being used as a temporary homeless shelter.

Providing people with their own space and their own bathrooms would be preferable, he said, but added that the coalition is open to “all good ideas, including the convention center.”

“We have a whole bunch of people living in our shelter in very close proximity,” said Roger Howell, president of City Gospel Mission, which serves single adults in its faith-based shelter. “We are pleading with the government officials, with foundations, with businesses.”

Howell said the community already has offered “phenomenal” support to homeless shelter operators. And Spring praised the city of Cincinnati for working closely with homeless providers to try to find a solution.

But the advocates who spoke at Tuesday’s news conference said they need more help right away.

The four homeless shelters in Hamilton County that serve families already have placed 50 families in suite-style hotel rooms big enough for parents and their children, said Stacey Burge, executive director of the Interfaith Hospitality Network of Greater Cincinnati.

“We’re looking for people to continue to help us making those hotel spaces available,” she said. “City and county officials have reached out, but we know they can marshal more resources.”

The county’s four family shelters typically house between 70 and 90 families on any given day, she added. Some of the families that aren’t now staying in hotels were placed quickly into permanent housing while still others are now staying with family members temporarily, she said.

The shelters have all worked together to try to do what’s best for the parents and children that have been relying on them, said Major Everett Henry of the Salvation Army of Cincinnati & Northern Kentucky.

“I trust that this city is going to be able to pull together,” he said.

City Gospel Mission and Shelterhouse, which operates the region’s largest homeless shelters for single men and women, have identified 212 people in their shelters that are considered high-risk during the pandemic, Spring said, either because of their age or poor health.

Finding hotel rooms for only those high-risk individuals for two weeks would cost $208,000, Spring said.

“As soon as donations are made and places are secured, we will move,” he said. “This is a big deal, and we need the big hands of government.”

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Families in homeless shelters typically sleep in close proximity, like in this room at the Salvation Army family homeless shelter in Over-the-Rhine.

If the region can’t come up with the money needed for all those rooms, Burge said, more people will be left homeless without any help at all. That includes parents and children, she said.

“Family homelessness has not gone away with this crisis,” she said. “We will have to decrease capacity, and we would serve less families.”

To help pay for hotel rooms for families experiencing homelessness, donate online at the Strategies to End Homelessness website.

To help pay for hotel rooms for individual men and women who are homeless, donate to the COVID-19 Regional Response Fund through United Way of Greater Cincinnati or the Greater Cincinnati Foundation. You must specify that you want the money used to help people who are homeless.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To reach Lucy, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.