CINCINNATI — Greater Cincinnati Behavioral Health worker Erica Parks goes out every morning in search of people who need a warm place to sleep. Not all of them want to go to a shelter, so she checks on their supplies: “Sleeping bags, tarps, sweatshirts, coats, hand-warmers.” Small, crucial defenses against the cold.
Parks and other local anti-homelessness advocates are worried as February temperatures continue to drop into the teens.
“I do worry about that, with hypothermia,” she said Thursday.
Protecting unhoused people from the cold is an annual problem for community advocates in Cincinnati. Since March 2020, COVID-19 has added two additional, potentially life-threatening wrinkles.
The first — the economic collapse that accompanied the pandemic pushed more people onto the streets. Strategies to End Homelessness, a local nonprofit, estimates that while the number of homeless people in shelters and on the streets declined in the first 11 months of 2020 in Hamilton County, the number of people homeless and living on the street increased by 28% during that time.
The second — protecting guests from COVID-19 has forced shelters to limit admittance or rent out hotel rooms to ensure social distancing requirements are met. Representatives of the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition said local shelters now have about 246 fewer beds to offer than they did in 2019.
Jay Davis, who said he has experienced homelessness for eight winters, knows what he needs to protect himself if he’s unhoused when cold weather hits: Clothes, blankets, the means to start a fire.
He also knows it’s not always enough.
“I had a buddy of mine, he froze to death,” he said. “He was 32 years old.”
Davis is getting an assist this year from Parks and advocates like her — he’ll be housed in a motel and will soon move into an apartment that anti-homelessness activists helped him find.
Parks said she’s doing her best to help other unhoused people find motel rooms, and she’s soliciting restaurants as well as individual Cincinnatians to donate food, water, coffee and blankets. Placing people like Davis in apartments helps create space for others in need.
“The faster we get them housed, the quicker we can get more people off the streets into these rooms,” she said.
If you or someone you know needs a place to stay as temperatures drop, call Greater Cincinnati Behavioral Services at 513-814-3886.