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Advocates say number of unsheltered homeless is growing as economic shockwaves of COVID-19 continue

Teams work to ensure people are safe, healthy
Posted at 5:00 AM, Apr 23, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-23 19:18:13-04

CINCINNATI — Mary Caldwell and Kurt Doyle began their slide into homelessness two years ago when a fire forced them out of their South Fairmount home.

They stayed with friends before they found another place to live where Doyle worked for the landlord to cover the rent and earn extra money. That relationship soured, resulting in fewer hours and smaller paychecks.

Doyle quit, the couple moved out and before long they were out on the streets, Caldwell said.

“You know how you got your so-called friends? If you ain’t got something to give 'em, they want to boot you out. So basically that’s how we really ended up out here,” she said, nodding toward their campsite hidden in a wooded area near downtown Cincinnati. “It’s not easy. It’s not easy at all really.”

Even as the COVID-19 crisis has raged, a growing number of people across Hamilton County are living the difficult life of unsheltered homelessness, said Josh Spring, executive director of the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition.

The Greater Cincinnati Behavioral Health Services’ PATH Team has been working with about 120 people living on the streets since March 1, according to PATH program supervisor Megan Jones. PATH stands for Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness, and the program gets both federal and local funding.

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Kurt Doyle, left, and Mary Caldwell have been staying at a homeless encampment near downtown Cincinnati for the past five or six months.

Spring called that number “alarming.” He said it’s impossible for even the dedicated PATH Team outreach workers to locate everyone who is living in a tent, under a bridge or in an abandoned building in an area as large as Hamilton County.

“The number of people outdoors has drastically increased,” Spring said. “That 120 number is likely low. Fortunately the state and local governments have made the smart decisions to sort of close things down and tell us not to be out and about. But the unintended consequence of that is loss of income and inability to pay rent and mortgages as well as other necessities. That means we’re going to be seeing more people coming.”

The PATH Team has been trying to get as many people off the streets and into hotel rooms as possible during the pandemic. Hundreds of individuals and families who were staying in shelters and on the streets have been moved into hotels. But there hasn’t been enough money to shelter everyone that way, Jones said.

“Funding is very short right now and so we’re trying to apply for grants and things like that so we can get people into motels,” she said. “Our shift in outreach has changed in that we’re trying to make sure that everybody living on the streets is safe and healthy.”

That’s not at all simple for people who are homeless and unsheltered.

‘You’re like stuck’

These days outreach workers are wearing masks and keeping their distance as they provide people with hygiene products and hand sanitizer, along with food and water. They also are explaining the need to space out tents at campsites for more social distancing than a typical encampment provides.

“Now every encounter begins with a quick symptom check,” said Nicole Smith, a PATH Team outreach worker. “We remind our clients what symptoms they should be watching out for. And we remind them of what the current CDC guidelines are.”

Those guidelines can be tough to follow, though, for people who are living outside.

Caldwell said she and Doyle do their best.

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Nicole Smith

“We don’t talk to as many people as we used to. Usually it’s just me and my fiancé, really, by ourselves, basically all day long,” she said.

But it’s difficult to find a place to wash up and stay clean, she said.

“I mean, you ain’t got nowhere to use the bathroom, especially since a lot of the restaurants are closed now,” Caldwell said. “Library’s closed. Even Fountain Square’s closed till, what, 10 o’clock on the weekends now? So, you’re like stuck, you know.”

Our Daily Bread Soup Kitchen & Social Center rented a portable toilet and portable hand-washing station to place outside their building in Over-the-Rhine, Spring said, and the nearby Mary Magdalen House did the same thing.

Greater Cincinnati Water Works set up two spigots for clean water outside of Our Daily Bread, too, he said, but it hasn’t been enough.

The Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition has spent some of its own limited funds to place another hand-washing station in the business district, another portable toilet and hand-washing station at Our Daily Bread and a portable toilet and hand-washing station in a separate location, Spring said.

“At this point, we’re working hard to figure out how we can get showers operational,” he said. “But we don’t currently have showers available.”

‘I’m not sure you can get any simpler’

For years, Mary Magdalen House has been the place where people who are homeless could take a shower and have their clothing laundered. But because so many of the nonprofit’s staff are at high-risk when it comes to COVID-19, it has not been able to stay open during the crisis, Spring said.

Advocates have suggested asking the Ohio National Guard to staff the shower house during the crisis, but so far neither Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley nor Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine has made the request, he said.

Even more critical than the showers, though, is for local government leaders to provide more access to clean drinking water, Spring said.

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Megan Jones

“If as a city we can figure out all the things that cities figure out – we can build skyscrapers and all of this – we can certainly provide clean water,” Spring said. “Outside of access to oxygen, I’m not sure you can get any simpler.”

A spokesman for the City of Cincinnati said city officials are keeping public restrooms open in several city parks from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. The restrooms are cleaned regularly, too.

A statement sent in response to WCPO's questions said the city also has agreed to the placement of more portable restrooms and hand-washing stations at 1730 Race St., 811 W. Eighth St., and 1629 Republic St.

City officials also are working to try to help reopen Mary Magdalen House, too, the statement said, and have offered to help with security details, cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment to help make that happen.

RELATED: Closed rec center to be used to quarantine homeless

In the meantime, the PATH Team continues to go out at least five days a week. The outreach workers start early in the morning and sometimes work until late at night, Jones said, to check on people like Caldwell and Doyle and connect them with resources.

“There’s always a need and an urgency to help individuals who are experiencing homelessness on the streets,” Jones said. “This just brings another layer to that urgency.”

Caldwell and Doyle have spent the past five or six months living at their hidden campsite. They had been working three days a week at a pizza restaurant in Covington and caught work on the City Gospel Mission Jobs Van as often as they could. But all that dried up with the COVID-19 crisis.

Now they spend their days holding signs asking for money and connecting with the PATH Team outreach workers who are trying to find them a place to stay.

Caldwell, who turns 50 this month, said she looks forward to the day she and Doyle can get back on their feet.

“Get our housing back,” she said. “Get our little jobs back.”

For now, she and Doyle do what they can to stay safe and keep their camp clean, although Caldwell said the rats can make that difficult.

“It’s just rough out here,” she said. “And people just don’t really realize it.”

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The PATH Team explained how best to move these tents to put more distance between them in an effort to stay safe during the COVID-19 crisis.

More information about Greater Cincinnati Behavioral Health Services and how you can help the PATH Team with donations 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. To reach Lucy, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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