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As Hamilton County's homeless shelters keep people warm this winter, they worry worst is yet to come

'There's potential grave danger for our community'
homeless shelter
Posted at 7:00 AM, Jan 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-26 18:36:50-05

CINCINNATI — Keyonate Kennedy and his fiancé lost their apartment in Newport about three months ago -- after Kennedy lost his job as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The couple moved from one extended-stay hotel to another, depleting the savings they accumulated together over the past two and a half years. Then they heard about Interfaith Hospitality Network of Greater Cincinnati.

“One of my church family members at Truth & Destiny said, ‘Hey, try Interfaith. They accept couples, you know, they don’t really care about the gender. They’re really nice and accepting,’” Kennedy recalled. “And I was like, shoot, OK!”

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Keyonate Kennedy

With the help of Interfaith Hospitality Network, Kennedy and his fiancé moved into a safer hotel room in early December.

They are among the roughly 200 people staying in dozens of hotels across the region thanks to federal funds designed to help people experiencing homelessness during the coronavirus pandemic.

Kennedy said having a safe, stable place to stay while he continues to look for work has done wonders for him and for his fiancé, who is a state-tested nursing assistant.

“My fiancé just started a brand-new job. He’s in a hospital now. So it has helped with his career exponentially,” he said. “I’ve never met such people who really want you to succeed in life, who want you to be your very best.”

As the coronavirus pandemic continues into the winter, Cincinnati and Hamilton County homeless service providers are working together more than ever to ensure people like Kennedy and his fiancé aren’t left out in the cold.

Data collected through November 2020 shows the number of people experiencing homelessness in Hamilton County -- including those staying in homeless shelters and those unsheltered and living on the street -- was 12.5% lower for the first 11 months of the year as compared with the first 11 months of 2019.

But the number of people who were unsheltered and living on the streets was 28% higher between January and November of 2020 than during that same time period in 2019.

Local experts worry the worst is yet to come.

“In other economic downturns that we’ve seen, it typically takes a year to two years for the number of people who are homeless to really go through the roof. We have absolutely no reason to think that that’s going to be different with this economic downturn just because it was caused by a virus,” said Kevin Finn, CEO of Strategies to End Homelessness, which allocates federal funds to service providers in Cincinnati and Hamilton County. “I think we definitely, unfortunately, are going to see an increase in homelessness. It’s just true to form.”

‘Potential grave danger’

For now, shelter providers are serving as many people as they can as safely as possible.

The Winter Shelter operated by Shelterhouse in Queensgate has reduced its capacity by about one-third to allow for more space between beds and better social distancing, said Arlene Nolan, Shelterhouse’s executive director.

In previous years, the shelter typically had between 150 or 160 people staying at the Winter Shelter, which has 200 beds total.

This winter, the shelter has had as many as 100 people each night, Nolan said.

“It’s been really helpful that other organizations have been able to place people in hotels,” she said. “If it wasn’t for that, we would not be able to meet the social distancing requirements.”

Interfaith Hospitality Network typically shelters homeless families with the help of local congregations and houses of worship but hasn’t been able to use that approach since last March. Instead, it is one of the nonprofits helping to shelter people like Kennedy and his fiancé in local hotel rooms.

“We’re a small shelter. We typically do eight families at a time during the winter. We’ve been consistently doing 10, and now we’re doing 12,” said Stacey Burge, the nonprofit’s executive director.

Burge’s organization is one of four family homeless shelter operators in Hamilton County but offers shelter to couples when possible, too.

“We had a long conversation before COVID around this idea of couples who do not have children who are not able to stay together in the shelter system,” Burge said. “And how for some of them, that means they don’t choose to come into the shelter system because they don’t want to be separated.”

Prince of Peace Lutheran Church and Talbert House are collaborating to help shelter homeless individuals in hotel rooms, and the church filled up its 45 available rooms within days, said Pastor John Suguitan.

The church typically provides shelter each winter at its Over-the-Rhine location but couldn’t do that this year because there wasn’t enough room for proper social distancing, Suguitan said. Prince of Peace has a waiting list of people seeking shelter in hotel rooms if any of the people currently staying there find more permanent housing and move out, he said.

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Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Over-the-Rhine.

The church and other community groups and nonprofits deliver food to the hotel 11 times each week, Suguitan said. But as grateful as he is that the hotel rooms are available, Suguitan said he’s worried about the future.

“I think there’s potential grave danger for our community if our community doesn’t bounce back,” he said. “I know for the homeless and those struggling with the economy, it’s not getting better.”

Looking ahead to the ‘newly struggling’

Some of the people staying in hotel rooms across the county have never been homeless before, said Talbert House CEO Neil Tilow.

“We have people who were in an apartment three days ago,” he said.

Talbert House operates housing to help people who have been homeless in the past and provides services to help residents with addiction and mental health support. The organization makes sure there is a security guard on duty and that the hotel gets paid using the federal funds available, Tilow said.

“The homeless community as a whole pulled together and ran toward the fire to address the issues,” he said.

The next big challenge, Tilow said, will be what happens next.

“We have to think about not just the housing, but the other support services that people need outside the housing,” he said, “and how do all those pieces fit together.”

But as shelter operators try to prepare for the future, they must get through the winter and the uncertainty of the months ahead. Burge said a number of questions loom:

  • Can all the shelter operators maintain their contracts for hotel rooms as the public starts to travel more, and hotels find it easier to get more traditional guests?
  • Will there be enough money to cover all the rooms and the extra costs associated with providing shelter in this new way?
  • And will shelter staff be able to continue to work the long hours and meet the demands of the coronavirus crisis?

“I do think we’re going to see a population of newly struggling, newly maybe experiencing homelessness for the first time ever,” Burge said. “Sometimes it’s hard for us to even conceive of what that might look like because it already feels like there’s so much to tackle.”

The key, Burge said, will be educating the community about the fact that – even after the COVID-19 vaccine rollout is complete – there will be serious challenges ahead.

“I will temper my high level of concern with my experience that this community does tend to step up,” she said.

Kennedy said he has felt that community support through the help he has received from Interfaith Hospitality Network.

“I can’t be anything but grateful for the experience and for the people and for the network of kindness,” he said. “I’m determined to grow and transform and develop so that I can come back and help others, you know. That’s my attitude towards it. All of this means nothing if I can’t take what I’ve been through and come back and grab a few people and help them to win, too.”

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Keyonate Kennedy

More information about Interfaith Hospitality Network of Greater Cincinnati, the Winter Shelter operated by Shelterhouse and how to donate to Hamilton County’s winter homeless shelter efforts is available online.

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. Poverty is an important focus for Lucy and for WCPO 9. reach Lucy, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.