Eviction prevention services and diversion funding helped people avoid homelessness during pandemic, data shows
Homelessness reached an eight-year low in 2021, with 6,062 people using emergency shelter and street outreach services in Hamilton County. That's almost 100 fewer people than in 2020 and almost 1,900 fewer than in 2013, according to recently released 2021 Homelessness and Shelter Diversion Data. The cause of the downward trend, one official says, is federal stimulus money aimed at prevention services.
"In normal times, there is no government funding available for prevention," said Kevin Finn, president and CEO of Strategies to End Homelessness. "So I think what you see there, with there being a decline over two years, is that preventing homelessness actually works."
In a normal year, Hamilton County gets about $28 million from the federal government for homeless services. The county and city of Cincinnati chip in an additional $2.2 million. That money can only be used to help people after they become homeless.
This year was different. Finn says roughly $500,000 worth of federal stimulus money was put toward diversion efforts, which is usually only funded by the state, city of Cincinnati, and the United Way of Greater Cincinnati.
The results, he says, are more people who can be helped with less money.
"Shelter diversion costs a little over $1,500 per person. Whereas, if we wait and help someone after they're already in a shelter, that costs $3,900 per person. And then if you go one step further, it costs significantly less to do diversion," Finn said. "But then you also get much, much more for your money because only about 15% of people who we serve in shelter diversion will become homeless in the future. Whereas, of the people who come into a shelter — and we spend spend significantly more money on them — a full third of them will become homeless again."
In Hamilton County, 1,181 people completely avoided homelessness last year due to shelter diversion efforts. Finn says that means people who'd already lost their primary residence and were temporarily living with a family or friend, were able to get assistance with housing — a down payment, months of rent, and a case manager. That's the highest number of people who've been helped with diversion since 2013.
It also kept people out of homeless shelters. Last year, 5,603 used homeless shelters or other safe havens in the county. That's the lowest number of people in shelters in eight years.
Finn says, in addition to shelter diversion efforts, funding for eviction prevention was also a key to preventing homelessness. Hamilton County and Cincinnati received tens of millions of dollars for eviction prevention assistance from federal stimulus money, too.
"I would tell you, think of it as rungs on a ladder, a ladder that you don't want to go down," he says. "So eviction prevention is, let's say, two rungs from the bottom. So you have a lot of stimulus money that's available for eviction prevention, and that is keeping people in their apartments. So, that's the first thing that is really good and preventing homelessness that's going on right now.
"But then let's say we don't manage to keep people in there from getting evicted, we don't manage to keep them in their own apartment. If you go one rung further down the ladder, so maybe one rung from the bottom, would be shelter diversion. Those are people who are already doubled up, they already lost their own housing. And now they're sleeping on other people's couches and floors, and all this kind of stuff. And if we don't help them while they're in that situation, then eventually they're going to run out of couches to sleep on. And they're going to end up dropping to the lowest rung on the ladder, which is being on the street or in shelter."
Despite being able to help more people more successfully with less money, Finn says the money for prevention services will start running out this year. Some of it will begin to dwindle by September. Other funding will reach an end in 2026.
He says it would take an act of Congress to allow money previously allocated for homeless services to be reallocated toward prevention services.