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As pandemic rages, this winter could be worst in years for homelessness in Greater Cincinnati

'We are all very nervous'
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Posted at 8:00 AM, Nov 12, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-13 18:04:23-05

CINCINNATI — They’re holding cardboard signs at intersections, making camp under bridge approaches and curling up in doorways to sleep.

A growing number of people are homeless and unsheltered in Greater Cincinnati, and advocates and service providers are worried the coronavirus pandemic could make this winter the most difficult in recent memory for hundreds of the region’s most vulnerable residents.

“It has been years since we had someone freeze to death on the streets of Cincinnati when there was not a shelter bed available for them,” said Kevin Finn, CEO of the nonprofit Strategies to End Homelessness. “But this year we’re potentially looking at a reality where people are on the street because they cannot access a shelter bed.”

Homeless shelters have reduced capacity to allow for social distancing between the people who sleep there. Some also are keeping space empty for people who are homeless and need to quarantine, either because they have COVID-19 or have been exposed to the virus.

The Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition and Strategies to End Homelessness estimate that shelters in Cincinnati and Hamilton County could have 246 fewer beds available this winter than they did last winter. Northern Kentucky shelters could have 102 fewer beds available this year, Finn said.

That’s at a time when Cincinnati and Hamilton County have seen a 35% increase in the number of people who are homeless and living on the street during the first 10 months of this year as compared to the first 10 months of 2019, Finn said.

“Last year we had 687 people who our street outreach workers encountered on the street” between January and October, he said. “This year it’s 929.”

Plus many of the places that homeless people have relied upon for shelter during the day – such as libraries and soup kitchens – are still closed or are limiting the amount of time anyone can stay inside in an effort to curb the spread of the virus.

“We are all very nervous,” said Melissa Hall Sommer, senior director of family economic success at Brighton Center in Northern Kentucky. “These are people’s lives. These are folks’ health and the ability to survive.”

There are efforts underway to address the crisis.

‘A unified winter plan’

In Cincinnati, Josh Spring, the homeless coalition's executive director, has been meeting for months with Cincinnati and Hamilton County service providers to come up with a coordinated plan for winter.

He and Finn have presented a plan to Cincinnati City Manager Paula Boggs Muething’s staff for how to spend roughly $4 million in federal dollars to increase street outreach to find people living outside, pay for hundreds of hotel rooms to get people off the streets when shelters are full and fund a possible day center where people can stay warm during daytime hours.

They also have requested some federal money be used for rental assistance to help get people out of homeless shelters and into apartments.

Any money that is leftover when the weather starts to warm up in 2021 could be used for eviction prevention, Spring said.

Finn said he hopes to get approval from the city by early next week.

“This is the first time we’ve presented a unified winter plan for singles and families,” said Stacey Burge, executive director of Interfaith Hospitality Network of Greater Cincinnati, which provides shelter and assistance for families experiencing homelessness. “We have all worked together.”

Service providers in Northern Kentucky are working together, too, and have been meeting for months to come up with a plan, said Danielle Amrine, the CEO of Welcome House of Northern Kentucky.

Boone County is seeking help to provide shelter to people who are homeless there, she said, and the city of Covington recently announced it would make $300,000 available to help with emergency sheltering this winter.

Campbell County is helping, too. Judge Executive Steve Pendery has offered the Emergency Shelter of Northern Kentucky use of Campbell County's Restricted Custody Center to shelter as many as 50 individuals who are homeless, said Kim Webb, executive director of Emergency Shelter of Northern Kentucky.

Emergency Shelter's Covington facility opened its winter operations on Nov. 1 but can only shelter 24 people safely there with social distancing, Webb said. Being able to more than double that capacity at the Campbell County facility in Newport will be a big help, she said.

"It's a gift," Webb said, adding that she expects to begin using the Newport facility later this month. "To go from 24 to 50 in a COVID world is a gift."

To help meet the need in Northern Kentucky, Welcome House is working to convert a building it owns on Greenup Street in Covington into a space that can shelter as many as 30 individuals this winter, Amrine said.

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Welcome House of Northern Kentucky's Gardens at Greenup

“We want to make sure that people aren’t outside, that people are not freezing to death, living in the stairwells and parking garages,” she said. “Our mission is to serve the homeless and end homelessness in Northern Kentucky. And when our partners are strained, we feel like it’s our responsibility to step up and meet the need.”

Welcome House still needs zoning approvals from the city of Covington and must have showers constructed in the building, too, Amrine said.

Despite all those efforts, though, local nonprofits expect there will be people -- including teens and young adults -- who sleep outside this winter because there is nowhere else for them to go.

“The reality is there will be people sleeping on the street. And often people will say, ‘Well, that’s their choice,’” said Kate Arthur, the community and youth services director for Brighton Center. “There are a few people that, yes, that is their choice. But the majority of people out there, it is not their choice. It is not their fault. And it’s not because of something they’ve done wrong.”

Nonprofits in Northern Kentucky plan to ask the community for donations of new blankets and tarps to distribute to people who are homeless and unsheltered, Sommer said.

“It breaks my heart,” Arthur said. “When you as a staff person have to give somebody a blanket and sleeping bag and say, ‘Here’s a safe place. Here’s a nice camp where people are nice.’ It’s heartbreaking to go home to your warm bed.”

‘We don’t have a choice’

Cincinnati’s largest emergency homeless shelters – the Esther Marie Hatton Center for Women and the David and Rebecca Barron Center for Men – have been filled to capacity nearly every night since the start of the pandemic, said Arlene Nolan. She’s the executive director of Shelterhouse, which operates both shelters.

Shelterhouse also operates the county’s largest winter shelter, which has accommodated as many as 200 people per night in years past.

This year, the winter shelter has more space between cots and will be able to accommodate only about 100 people per night, she said.

Nolan said she hasn’t seen a dramatic increase in the number of people seeking shelter so far this year and hopes the winter shelter can accommodate everyone who wants to sleep there.

“We don’t have a choice,” she said. “Whatever challenges present itself, we just address them and move on.”

Smaller nonprofits are finding ways to help those who aren’t sheltered, too.

St. Francis Seraph Ministries in Over-the-Rhine reopened its dining room Nov. 2 for sit-down dinners. It was the first time the nonprofit had clients inside to eat since March 13, when the organization closed its dining room and began distributing to-go meals instead.

RELATED: St. Francis Seraph Ministries in OTR reopens for dinner

“This eight months of being closed for just the homeless has just been terrible,” said Executive Director Chris Schuermann said. “It’s really been hard to watch the number of people who have been unsheltered with no place to go to eat a meal.”

St. Francis Seraph Ministries also now allows a handful of clients to sleep outside the organization’s front door each night where the nonprofit’s security cameras make them feel safer, she said.

“We’re very worried about some of our chronically homeless who have been outside now for eight months with limited help,” Schuermann said. “The mentally ill, the addicted, the chronic homeless clients that we serve. It’s been hard to watch their physical deterioration.”

Barry Dell stopped by for dinner the first night St. Francis Seraph reopened. Dell works a warehousing job at Amazon and lives nearby but stops by for meals occasionally if he’s low on cash, he said.

Dell said he figures the dining room serves lots of homeless people, although he doesn’t ask people personal questions like that.

“They say find a need and fill it,” Dell said of the nonprofit’s dining room. “It’s filling a need for sure.”

The bigger need, though, is for more affordable housing, the homeless coalition's Spring said.

“If we had enough affordable housing, we wouldn’t need to spend money on hotel rooms,” Spring said. “None of it would be necessary and hopefully that becomes even more clear to the general public. That we don’t need to be in the position we are in.”

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St. Francis Seraph Ministries reopened its Over-the-Rhine dining room Nov. 2, 2020.

Strategies to End Homelessness is working to raise money for winter sheltering expenses that federal funds won’t cover. You can donate online.

You can also reach out directly to any of the nonprofit organizations listed in this story and ask about how you can help.

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.