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Empty shelters mean higher costs as Bethany House assists homeless families during COVID-19 crisis

'It's more challenging than it's ever been'
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Posted at 5:00 AM, Sep 14, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-14 17:32:51-04

CINCINNATI — Catherine Porter never expected her family to be homeless.

She and her husband have steady jobs stocking shelves at a local Kroger store, and they felt settled in their Norwood rental home.

But when the old owner moved and sold the house, the new owner gave the family 30 days to leave. They found a place to live in the same school district, Porter said. But she said that fell through when the couple went to sign the lease and the landlord decided he didn’t want to rent to the family because Porter’s husband is Black.

“It broke me big time. I was scared,” she said. “I didn’t know what I was going to do.”

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Catherine Porter and her husband, center, with her older daughter in the upper left and younger daughter in the lower right.

Porter’s daughters stayed with other relatives while she and her husband slept in their car. After six weeks apart, they moved into a hotel room so they could get the girls back and all stay together. But that cost $400 a week, leaving the couple very little money for food and other expenses, Porter said.

Then Porter and her family connected with Bethany House Services, one of four family homeless shelter providers in Hamilton County.

“Bethany House saved us,” Porter said.

Bethany House moved the family to a hotel where the nonprofit has been sheltering clients since March. That’s when the coronavirus pandemic forced the nonprofit to move families out of crowded shelters where the virus could have spread quickly. Now Porter and her family have food and meals provided to them, assistance with finding a permanent home and people willing to listen and help them navigate through their struggles.

“We really feel so special and amazing,” Porter said. “Because I know they’re not going to give up or stop helping us. They want to see us going forward. And that’s what we want to see.”

The pandemic has made it far more challenging and expensive to provide families like Porter’s with the services they need to get back on track, said Bethany House CEO Susan Schiller. That makes the organization’s annual Ales to Zinfandels event – and its fundraising goal of $75,000 -- more important than ever this year, she said.

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The Bethany House Services Fairmount shelter was quiet on Sept. 9, 2020.

“In a normal year, it’s always a challenge,” Schiller said. “But this year it’s more challenging than it’s ever been before.”

‘Not the typical homeless face’

Bethany House moved 21 families to hotel rooms from its shelters in Fairmount and Bond Hill in March as the risks from the coronavirus became apparent.

Since March 23, Bethany House has sheltered 96 families in hotel rooms. That's a total of 275 individuals, 168 of them children.

The nonprofit continues to shelter 21 families in rooms at two different hotels at a cost of $700 per week for each family, Schiller said. Family shelters have gotten money from Hamilton County and local foundations and funders to help cover the cost of those rooms, she said, but the shelters have no idea how long it will last.

“Financially, the virus has really impacted us,” she said. “In the beginning we got a reduced (hotel room) rate because the hotels were empty. We no longer get that. We had to hire a security person to be at the hotel for us. We have the additional laundry expenses. Just all the different supplies that you need nowadays, whether it’s masks, hand sanitizers, cleaners.”

Bethany House continues to provide food and meals to its client families, too, Schiller said, but the organization is getting far fewer donations of food than it did at the start of the pandemic.

“We are seeing an increase in the need for services,” Schiller said. “We expected this.”

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Bethany House Services has masks and hand sanitizer near computers at its Fairmount shelter. Photo taken Sept. 9, 2020.

A Columbia University economics professor predicted that homelessness could increase by between 40% and 45% this year because of the increase in unemployment that the COVID-19 economic crisis created.

“Most people, when they think of a homeless person, they think of the gentleman on the street corner with the cardboard sign, and they don’t picture children,” Schiller said. “Bethany House shelters 800 children every year, and we serve another 800 children in our housing program. This is not the typical homeless face that you’re used to seeing.”

Members of the community are helping Bethany House and Hamilton County’s other family shelter providers figure out what changes they must make before they can move families back to their group shelter facilities, Schiller said.

“Our problem is we have all these little children, and you know what kids are like,” she said. “They touch everything. They’re very busy. And making sure that we can keep those kids safe and their parents safe is a very, very big concern.”

‘They lift you up’

Bethany House is working to design and build a new $16 million shelter to combine its seven current facilities into one, new consolidated shelter and service center in Bond Hill for families experiencing homelessness. The organization began a capital campaign last fall to raise the money it needs to build the new facility and started with great momentum, Schiller said.

But individuals, foundations and corporations have been reluctant to contribute since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, she said, and it’s unclear how much funding Bethany House will get from the state of Ohio for the project.

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Bethany House Services removed most of the playground equipment from behind its shelter in Fairmount. Photo taken Sept. 9, 2020.

The new, consolidated shelter will have space for medical services, mental health providers, employment counseling, tutors and mentors, Schiller said.

“That is going to help us stabilize the families so much quicker,” she said. “We’re going to be able to reduce the length of stay, reduce the trauma to the families and then get them into their own homes. And so it just can’t happen quick enough.”

In the meantime, Bethany House staff will do all they can to help children and parents like Porter, who are experiencing homelessness as they grapple with remote learning and the uncertainty of the pandemic.

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Catherine Porter with her older daughter in a Snapchat photo.

“I used to want to give up because I’m scared that I can’t take it or provide for my kids or I’m not doing something right because I lost our home, like it’s my fault. And once you’ve been here, they lift you up. They give you that spirit that you can do it,” Porter said. “It really changed the way I’ve been feeling, like I know my kids are safe where we’re staying. We don’t have to be scared on the streets or I don’t have to worry about where my kids are going or who they’re going to be with and what they’re going to eat. It’s amazing.”

Now that Porter and her husband aren’t spending their paychecks on hotel rooms, they can save up money to rent a new place, she said, and work their way back.

“Being in our own home and being able to cook in our own home and going outside, playing in our backyard or just having family time,” Porter said. “We miss those days. We want it back. Like, we want to be able to just be our own selves and be the family that we used to be.”

More information about Bethany House Services is available online. Tickets for this year’s virtual Ales to Zinfandels three-day fundraiser can be purchased through Friday, Sept. 18. More information about the fundraiser 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. To reach Lucy, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.