CINCINNATI — Life was getting better for Alyssa Cooper.
She fled an abusive relationship in January and moved into a domestic violence shelter with her five children. She left town for a while when her abuser figured out where she was, but by early February, she and her kids were back at a Cincinnati homeless shelter operated by Bethany House Services.
“I got them into day care, and I was in the process of looking for a job,” she said.
Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, and a homeless shelter packed with other moms and kids no longer was a safe place to be.
“We all realized that if one of our moms or children or even staff members were diagnosed as positive for COVID-19, we realized everybody in the congregate shelters would be exposed,” said Bethany House CEO Susan Schiller.
Hamilton County’s four family homeless shelter providers — Bethany House, Interfaith Hospitality Network of Greater Cincinnati, the local Salvation Army and YWCA of Greater Cincinnati — began moving their clients into hotel rooms on March 19.
While that has kept homeless families safe from the highly contagious virus, there’s nothing the shelter providers can do to insulate their clients from the impact of the larger crisis. Finding child care, jobs and housing has become harder than ever for parents experiencing homelessness, Schiller said, and it’s impossible to predict when any of it will get easier.
“Family homelessness is always a marginalizing and sort of isolating experience,” said Stacey Burge, Interfaith Hospitality Network’s executive director. “For many families, what they’ve expressed to me is they feel that they’re on the outside of things. And I think in many ways being homeless during this pandemic has kind of compounded that sense of being on the outside.”
Busting the budget to help families
Bethany House, Interfaith Hospitality Network, the Salvation Army and YWCA have sheltered roughly 70 families per week in hotel rooms over the past seven weeks at a total cost of $420,000 to date. Some have been able to leave the shelters and move to permanent homes.
More than 100 families that are homeless have gotten help to date, and that’s just in Hamilton County.
Welcome House of Northern Kentucky has sheltered more than two dozen families in hotel rooms. The organization currently has 20 adults and 29 children in hotels. The advocacy group Maslow’s Army continues to help about a half-dozen families, including a total of 20 children, cover the cost of hotels.
“Two of them are 1-month-old twins that we’ve housed since the first week of birth,” said Samuel Landis, the executive director and co-founder of Maslow’s Army, which has spent $125,000 on hotel rooms and support for homeless families and individuals since March 23. “She had her children premature. When she was in the hospital, she got a call from the place that she was staying at that somebody was infected with COVID-19, and she couldn’t go back.”
Some families still are staying at Welcome House of Northern Kentucky’s Covington shelter after staff members determined it was possible to maintain appropriate social distancing at the facility, said Welcome House CEO Danielle Amrine.
But Welcome House has spent nearly $30,000 on hotel rooms for other families since March 1, when the organization started booking rooms for families because its shelter was full, she said.
It hasn’t been easy for parents, Amrine said.
“I think it’s really challenging for people with kids right now. But especially when you’re in a hotel. When you’re at home, you can play your games or do different stuff,” she said. “They don’t have that same opportunity.”
‘This isn’t going to end any time soon’
Grace Maute and her daughter, Rylee, have been staying at Microtel Inn & Suites in Florence since March 2 thanks to Maslow’s Army.
Maute had to leave her home in Boone County while a crew removed lead pipes there, Landis said. She and her daughter have been at the hotel ever since.
“Keeping a 7-year-old in a hotel has been hard,” Maute said. “Sam’s been a blessing. He took her to Walmart.”
Maute spoke with WCPO after she and Rylee had just gotten back to the hotel after going for a walk on a recent sunny day.
“We walked the golf course and found some golf balls,” Maute said. “They gave her a quarter a piece for them. She has a lot of fun doing it.”
Maute said she found a place to rent weeks ago and even paid the security deposit, but she hasn’t been able to move in because of the COVID-19 crisis.
Cooper found a place, too. She is waiting for approval from the federal Housing Choice Voucher program, better known as Section 8, before she can move.
“It’s been very difficult transitioning families into housing,” Schiller said. “Not all landlords will meet you at the apartment. We’re having to make different arrangements for the inspections. The bottom line is, we’re short affordable housing to begin with, and any kind of a decrease makes a major impact.”
Even in a normal year, shelters typically see a surge in family homelessness during the summer months. Shelter operators aren’t sure how they will handle more families beyond those they’re housing already, Burge said.
“This isn’t going to end anytime soon. This is going to last a long time,” Burge said. “And we’re going to have to re-look at everything we’re doing and adjust.”
Hamilton County’s family shelter providers are part of a committee that has been working to figure out what the future will look like for homeless shelters, she said.
‘The need is rising’
The committee has talked about the need for automatic light switches and sinks so shelter guests don’t have to touch those things constantly and additional bathrooms so people don’t have to crowd to use them, she said.
“The need is rising, we have increased costs because of alternative sheltering, and then there’s this big unknown financially in terms of making sure shelter is safe going forward,” she said. “It’s a lot to think about from a fundraising perspective.”
For now, parents are focused on keeping their kids happy and doing what they can to work toward a more stable life.
For Cooper, that means meals and schoolwork and bath time each night.
“We usually watch some TV,” she said. “I try to get them outside for a few hours, each and every day so they don’t go stir crazy.”
As challenging as it has been at the hotel, Cooper said she’s grateful.
“I’m kind of lucky that they’re still helping us because I don’t have any family. I don’t have people there for me,” she said of Bethany House.
“We all have each other, and we’re not sick. That’s the bright side," she said. "Healthy, fed and happy. That’s all I can ask for really.”
Still, she thinks about the future sometimes.
She will need beds and a couch when she can finally move into the place she wants to rent. She hopes to have a nice house and maybe a minivan someday. She would love to take her kids camping and swimming, she said, and she wants to further her education along the way.
“I’m really grateful for everything that I have right now. So that’s the big one, that I have to remain humble and remember the important things to me,” she said. “Hopefully we can get on our feet all the way.”
Greater Cincinnati homeless services providers all need additional funding. You can donate online through Strategies to End Homelessness to help provide for families experiencing homelessness in Hamilton County. Welcome House of Northern Kentucky and Maslow’s Army also accept donations 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. Poverty is an important focus for Lucy and for WCPO. To reach Lucy, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.