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From sleeping in a car to staying at a hotel, family saw how homeless shelter system is maxed out

'Right now is the worst time to be homeless'
Yudenia Perez, center, with her sons, from lower left, Solar, Positive and Infinite, pose for a family photo next to the car where they had to sleep sometimes.
Posted at 6:00 AM, Nov 18, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-19 20:16:23-05

CINCINNATI — Yudenia Perez had nowhere to go when she and her children suddenly had to leave their rental home in East Price Hill.

“The landlord had issues with the city, so I had to leave the premises,” she said. “And hence left me and my children out in the cold.”

It got colder as Perez struggled to find a place to stay. Every day for weeks, she said, she called the CAP Line, a hotline for people who are homeless and seeking help. But Hamilton County’s family shelter providers had no room for her and her sons, who are 11, 10 and 1 year old.

“We were forced to sleep in our car,” she said. “It wasn’t easy. It was cold. The baby was not comfortable. The boys were complaining a little. We were used to being at home. Now we had to change drastically, and it wasn’t easy or fun.”

Perez and her kids got lucky one day earlier this month when a hotel room became available through Interfaith Hospitality Network of Greater Cincinnati. A CAP Line operator connected Perez with the organization, and she and her sons have been at the hotel ever since.

Yudenia Perez and her sons slept in their car some nights last month. This photo shows the interior of the car with photos of the children hanging from the rearview mirror.
Yudenia Perez and her sons slept in their car some nights last month.

“I feel blessed. We’re not in the car,” she said. “Right now is the worst time to be homeless.”

It’s also an especially bad time for homeless families in Greater Cincinnati to get help.

The CAP Line got 33% more calls in the first 10 months of this year than it received in all of 2020, said Kevin Finn. He’s the CEO of Strategies to End Homelessness, which operates the CAP Line.

“We’re seeing this increased demand at the worst possible time because it’s more work for the shelters to take in just the number of people they normally do,” Finn said. “That’s largely due to COVID and social distancing requirements and limitations on their facilities that were made worse by fear of spreading the virus.”

‘Reach out for assistance right away’

Only about 14% of the families that have called the CAP Line have gotten into homeless shelters for the first 10 months of this year, Finn said. The hotline also has connected nearly 12% with housing through shelter diversion services.

In all of 2020, roughly 19% of the families that called the CAP Line got into homeless shelters, according to Finn’s data, and nearly 10% got housing through shelter diversion services.

Interfaith Hospitality Network of Greater Cincinnati, or IHNGC, has been providing shelter for 12 families at a time throughout the COVID-19 pandemic by putting families up in hotel rooms, said Stacey Burge, IHNGC’s CEO.

Families are staying in shelter much longer than they used to, Burge said, because it is taking her organization’s housing specialists so much longer to find safe, affordable housing for them.

“There were many years when our average length of stay in shelter hovered right between 28 to 32 days,” she said. “Over the last five years or so that’s been steadily growing, and now we’re in the 80s – 85 days or so. So the longer a family has to stay in shelter, the longer that bed is taken up.”

Finding housing is a problem for all of Hamilton County’s family shelters, she said, which means it takes longer for all of them to move their clients into housing and free up space for other parents and children in need.

With many cold weeks to go before the end of the year, Finn said he expects call volume to the CAP Line will continue to increase.

But while the shelters are maxed out, he said, there still is plenty of help available for people who are behind on their rent and are worried they will become homeless as a result.

“The closer you get to literal homelessness, the less resources are available,” Finn said. “As soon as someone’s housing is in jeopardy, they should reach out for assistance right away because there will be more available to them.”

‘It got pretty cold at night’

Perez decided to go public with her story, she said, to raise awareness about the struggles facing families that are homeless and to encourage the community to help in any way possible.

She and her children were not to blame for their circumstances, she said, but they were stuck.

“It got pretty cold at night,” Perez said. “What if we didn’t have a vehicle. Then what, you know?”

Her 11-year-old son, Solar, said sleeping in the car was uncomfortable.

“It was kind of hard to sleep in the car,” he said. “It would be cold. Sometimes the car wouldn’t start.”

And 10-year-old Positive said it got scary, too.

Yudenia_Perez_and_sons.JPG
Yudenia Perez, top row center, and her sons are grateful for their hotel room that Interfaith Hospitality Network of Greater Cincinnati is providing them.

“We couldn’t find a safe place to park where we wouldn’t get hurt or someone try to steal the car,” he said. “We could barely fall asleep, and it was hard because I had to keep on staying awake because I felt like something was coming to come out and get us.”

Everyone feels much safer now in the hotel.

“It’s way more comfortable and more warmer,” Positive said.

“It’s very nice to stay there instead of the car,” Solar added. “Because it’s nice and warm, and we don’t have to like snuggle up and like cuddle together for our heat.”

Still, Perez said she can’t help but worry for the families that aren’t as lucky.

“I feel so bad every time I see the temperature drop,” she said. “That’s the first thing I think of – the people that are unfortunate and aren’t able to have anywhere to sleep where it’s nice and warm and comfortable.”

Her sons have a message for other kids who are going through what they did.

“It might be tough now, but it’ll get better,” Solar said. “Things will get better.”

“My message would be don’t stop believing that you will not get a home,” Positive said. “You know that eventually you’ll get one.”

That’s the next step for Perez and her sons, she said, and IHNGC is helping her make it happen.

Hamilton County families looking for homeless shelters can call the CAP Line at (513) 381-SAFE. That’s (513) 381-7233. The hotline accepts calls from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. More information about the CAP Line is available online.

Hamilton County residents who are behind on their rent and utility payments and are worried about being evicted can seek help from Hamilton County Job & Family Services or Cincinnati-Hamilton County Community Action Agency. More information about those resources is available online.

More information about Interfaith Hospitality Network of Greater Cincinnati – and how you can help – is available on its Facebook page.

More information about Strategies to End Homelessness is available online, too.

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