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Hamilton County needs 1,000 rooms to keep people who are homeless safe from COVID-19, advocates say

'People are in grave danger'
Posted: 2:57 PM, Mar 19, 2020
Updated: 2020-03-19 14:57:07-04
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CINCINNATI — Editor’s note: With our coronavirus coverage, our goal is not to alarm you but to equip you with the information you need. We will try to keep things in context and focus on helping you make decisions. See a list of resources and frequently asked questions at the end of this story.

Cincinnati and Hamilton County need 1,000 rooms where people experiencing homelessness can safely stay without fear of getting or spreading COVID-19, advocates told city and county officials in a letter Thursday.

The letter distributed by the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition said that organizations working to help people who are homeless appreciate the steps that city leaders have taken to convert the Over-the-Rhine Recreation Center into a place where a limited number of people can safely quarantine.

But it’s simply not enough, said Josh Spring, the coalition’s executive director.

“It really just hit the group, all the service providers, that yes, we’ve almost got quarantine set up, which is great. But if one of our people goes into quarantine and their test comes back positive, that means potentially everybody that was in the shelter with them before they went into quarantine was also exposed,” Spring told WCPO.

“The governor, the president, the mayor are saying that we need to keep apart from each other. But in the shelter, in a congregate housing setting, it’s impossible to do that,” he added. “If we don’t do something, people are in grave danger. And the broader community as a result.”

A spokesman for the city of Cincinnati told WCPO he wasn’t sure if city leaders had seen the letter yet because they have been busy Thursday with the news that Hamilton County has its first cases of people who tested positive for the new coronavirus.

Spring said in an interview that service providers understand that it won’t be simple to find 1,000 empty rooms with access to their own bathrooms and, for as many as possible, cooking facilities. Advocates estimate that would be enough to house the 1,800 individuals and family members that are currently staying in homeless shelters and halfway houses in Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

The letter suggests using empty hotel rooms, vacant apartments and college dormitories that are empty and unused during the pandemic.

“It’s not an easy task,” Spring said. But there must be, between all of those options, there must be 1,000 spaces.”

Kevin Finn, the CEO of Strategies to End Homelessness, said in an email response to questions from WCPO that “it has become abundantly clear that it is not an option to deal with COVID-19 after it has landed in homeless shelters, as people in the shelters are in very close quarters.”

“By the time the first positive diagnosis is given to a resident, hundreds of others may have already been exposed,” Finn wrote. “Therefore, the only way to responsibly prepare for COVID-19 is to proactively move people out of congregate facilities where they are at great risk and into individual hotel, motel or dorm rooms.”

Spring said people experiencing homelessness need the rooms right away.

“The shelters, of course, are running with low staff, and they’re struggling,” he said. “But I know they’re all on board with – if we establish these options – they will immediately start the process of transitioning people to these individual rooms.”

Click here to read the letter that the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition sent Thursday.

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.