CINCINNATI — Cameron Clemons visits Our Daily Bread in Over-the-Rhine every day – Monday through Friday – to get a hot meal.
“I’ve been coming here for, I’d say, about four or five months now,” he said.
But food isn’t Clemons’ only basic need the Cincinnati soup kitchen meets.
He also uses the portable toilets that sit on the sidewalk outside Our Daily Bread’s building on Race Street.
“Probably about 100, 200 people use them same two portalets every day,” he said. “Seriously, there’s nowhere else to go around here. And, you know, with COVID and stuff going on, a lot of people don’t like you just walking in their establishment and using their bathrooms.”
The coronavirus pandemic forced Our Daily Bread to change its operations completely last March – just as it did for so many businesses and nonprofits. But after the organization shut down its dining room and began distributing meals to go, Executive Director Georgine Getty said she quickly realized that wasn’t enough. People needed toilets, too.
“A lot of the parks were forced to close. The libraries were forced to close, and there were literally no places for people who were experiencing homelessness to use the restroom, to access fresh drinking water and just to be inside ever,” Getty said. “We knew that we had to find a way for people to just access the most basic of their human needs.”
City officials quickly approved permits for the portable toilets, she said, and Rumpke Waste & Recycling found and delivered two that Our Daily Bread have been renting ever since.
“It just became sort of the new way of doing business,” Getty said. “Since we couldn’t bring people in, we had to bring those amenities out to them.”
Our Daily Bread spends about $250 per month to rent the portable toilets and for Rumpke to clean them two times per week.
The organization rented a hand-washing station, too, which was available for use until the cold winter months. Our Daily Bread will bring that back this spring, Getty said, along with a drinking water tap for people to use.
Unsheltered homeless population ‘exploded’
“With the handwashing station, it was not clean drinking water, and we noticed people were starting to fill up water bottles using that,” she said. “We connected with Cincinnati Water Works, and they put out a water tap, which connects to our water supply, but it’s fresh, clean drinking water. And I really think that saved a lot of lives this summer when it got so hot.”
Our Daily Bread served a total of 164,177 meals last year – 20,000 more than in 2019.
“The main thing that has changed is that our unsheltered homeless population has just exploded in this city, because the shelters were forced to limit their capacity,” Getty said. “We saw numbers like we’ve never seen in our 36-year history of people who were literally sleeping outside and didn’t have shelter.”
On its busiest day last year, the soup kitchen served 783 individuals one day in mid-August, she said, which was its largest number ever.
“When we interviewed those folks, we found that 60% of them were sleeping outdoors, and 40% were staying in some sort of shelter,” Getty said.
Across Hamilton County, overall homelessness decreased in 2020, said Kevin Finn, the CEO of Strategies to End Homelessness.
The county had 5,642 individuals who were homeless and stayed in shelters last year, Finn said. 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, he said. That was 186 more “unsheltered homeless” people than in 2019, he said, for an increase of 22%.
The number of people who were homeless and living outside was the largest during the warmest months last year when shelters were struggling to accommodate people safely, Finn said.
That increase in the unsheltered homeless population, he said, made the past year the right time for portable toilets.
“In a normal year, we have enough shelter capacity for single individuals,” he said. “In a normal year, I would tell you I’m not a big fan of putting restrooms all over the place, because you’re just making it easier for people to stay on the street where they’re three times as likely to die.”
This past year, though, was anything but normal.
“I would say those portable toilets were a very good thing to have available during the pandemic,” Finn said. “They were a good thing in this very specific window of time, but that doesn’t mean it’s something we would want to do forever.”
‘Attending to people’s basic humanity’
Getty said Our Daily Bread plans to keep the portable toilets on the sidewalk until the organization can reopen fully, which won’t happen for months.
“Once all the volunteers and staff are vaccinated and they start opening up the vaccine for our guests, we’re going to start experimenting with limited reopening, spacing, masks, all of that,” she said. “We’re hoping by next fall, next winter, we’ll be able to be there for people.”
The people who rely on Our Daily Bread clearly appreciate the effort.
“We had one woman early on in the pandemic who actually wrote us a little poem, thanking us for the portalets,” Getty said. “And during the unrest over the summer, we had different homeless camps who would sleep in shifts and take turns kind of guarding the portalets.”
Clemons said it’s impossible to overstate how important the portable toilets are for the people who use them.
“You don’t want people to, really, exposing themselves, and, you know, just using the bathroom wherever, you know, like animals,” he said. “You know, I walk 20 minutes just to come up to this area to use the bathroom if I’m out and about over here. You know, if you’re walking, there’s really no other port-a-potties or public places to use the bathroom.”
He said there should be more.
“It’d be awesome if we could get some more port-a-potties,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be specifically right here. Honestly, I don’t see why there isn’t a lot more, you know. Especially since COVID and all that stuff.”
Getty said Our Daily Bread can afford only the two.
“It doesn’t seem like much,” she said. “But it’s like simultaneously like the least we can do and also the most we can do right now. And I just think that attending to people’s basic humanity is really a good way to help us get through this crisis together and come out on the other side still intact.”
Our Daily Bread needs donations to continue to pay for the portable toilets and to cover the cost of the containers and packaging it uses for to-go meals. It also accepts donations of food. More information about how to help 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. Poverty is an important focus for Lucy and for WCPO 9. To reach Lucy, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.