CINCINNATI — Mary Caldwell knows what it’s like to spend her days panhandling for money and her nights sleeping in a tent on the fringes of Cincinnati.
Caldwell and her fiancé spent nearly two years living that way after they lost everything in an apartment fire and became homeless.
“We was out, you know, just trying to make it day by day,” she said.
Life is better now. Caldwell and her fiancé have an apartment in College Hill, where they have been living for nearly a year thanks to street outreach workers with GeneroCity 513. The outreach workers checked on the couple -- sometimes daily -- built a relationship and helped connect them with the resources they needed to rebuild their lives.
“They actually came to you with respect,” Caldwell said. “They didn’t treat you no different than they were. And so that meant a lot to me.”
Street outreach has been part of GeneroCity 513 since the Cincinnati Center City Development Corp. launched the initiative in 2018. But when the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in more people being homeless and living on the streets, the organization decided to increase outreach efforts, said David Vissman, 3CDC’s vice president of operations.
“We were able to try to meet the needs of the community as things were changing kind of day-to-day, month-to-month Downtown,” he said.
Through a contract with Greater Cincinnati Behavioral Health Services, 3CDC increased the number of GeneroCity 513 street outreach workers from three to four full-time employees and a fifth who works seasonally from April through October.
“We’ve definitely seen an increase in our ability to connect with people on the street,” Vissman said. “Have multiple interactions with those folks over the course of the day, the week.”
Those interactions are getting results.
In 2019 – before the pandemic and added staff – GeneroCity 513 helped 25 individuals get permanent housing. That number increased to helping 87 people get housing in 2020. And this year – through July – GeneroCity 513 outreach workers have helped 98 people get off the streets and into housing, said Joe Rudemiller, 3CDC’s vice president of marketing and communications.
Outreach where it’s needed
The program focuses on people who are panhandling or sleeping outside in Cincinnati’s Central Business District or in Over-the-Rhine, said Nicole Smith, engagement specialist team leader for Greater Cincinnati Behavioral Health Services’ GeneroCity outreach.
“We work to get those individuals connected to different services, whether it be housing, mental health connections, substance use connections, employment,” Smith said. “I think the biggest impact that we’ve been able to make, having more outreach workers on the ground, is that our clients are seeing us more frequently, so we’re able to build that rapport with them a little quicker.”
Street outreach was especially important last year when Cincinnati and Hamilton County saw an overall decrease in homelessness – but an increase in the number of people who were homeless and living outside, said Kevin Finn, CEO of Strategies to End Homelessness, the nonprofit that funnels federal money to local homeless service providers.
The county had 5,642 individuals who were homeless and stayed in shelters last year, according to Strategies to End Homelessness data. That was a decrease of 996 people, or 15%, compared to 2019.
But Cincinnati and Hamilton County had a total of 1,024 people in 2020 who were homeless and living on the streets. That was 186 more “unsheltered homeless” people than in 2019, for an increase of 22%.
So far this year, the number of people who are homeless has been decreasing across the board, Finn said, with 46 fewer people staying in homeless shelters during the first seven months of this year compared with the first seven months of 2020. The decrease is more dramatic for unsheltered homelessness, with 139 fewer people living outside through July of this year compared with the first seven months of 2020.
“Hopefully that’s reversing the trend from last year,” Finn said.
Having additional outreach workers – especially Downtown – is important for those who remain homeless and unsheltered, Finn said.
“Most of our homeless camps are close to Downtown, and GeneroCity 513 is focusing on areas close to Downtown,” he said. “It’s an ideal program in terms of adding exactly the kind of capacity we need in exactly the locations where it is really needed.”
Creating a ‘cohesive’ Downtown
3CDC funds GeneroCity 513 through money generated by the Downtown Cincinnati Improvement District. Downtown building owners tax themselves, Vissman said, and 3CDC uses that money to pay the street outreach workers and the clean and safe ambassadors who pick up trash and litter in Downtown and Over-the-Rhine.
Although 3CDC is better known for its redevelopment of buildings in Over-the-Rhine and Downtown, Vissman said the programs in the GeneroCity 513 outreach is a critical part of the organization’s work.
“It’s just overall trying to make a cohesive Downtown, both for people to come down and want to go to the new restaurants to people wanting to move here to start a new job,” he said. “It just all kind of works together.”
It sure has worked for Caldwell and her fiancé, she said.
“Now I got a stable home that I can go to that’s mine, you know, and it’s just enjoyable,” Caldwell said. “It’s quiet where I live at. The neighbors are nice. So I’m glad I’m there.”
Smith said her team continues to work with Caldwell to make sure she gets the supports she needs.
“They’re trying to get me set up with a vocational program. They’re setting me up with mental health,” Caldwell said. “That way I can move forward with getting a job and getting my medication if I need medication.”
Caldwell worked in factories and at restaurants before she became homeless, she said, and she would be happy doing either again.
“Maybe turn into a manager or something,” she said. “Maybe one day. Who’s to say? As long as I can just work.”
More information about GeneroCity 513 is available online. The program’s street outreach workers are out working with people in downtown Cincinnati and Over-the-Rhine from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. To contact an outreach worker during those hours, call (513) 498-6192 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.