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New shelters for families experiencing homelessness are opening. Advocates say they are much-needed

CEO Peg Dierkers stands in front of Bethany House in Bond Hill a few weeks before the scheduled opening October 1, 2022.
Ann Thompson
CEO Peg Dierkers stands in front of Bethany House in Bond Hill a few weeks before the scheduled opening October 1, 2022.

"The family shelter system is always full and could probably fill up two or three times over if space was available," says CEO of Strategies to End Homelessness Kevin Finn.

During the pandemic, Sadia Hodges was laid off from her job at a daycare center. To top it off, the Cincinnati woman’s landlord kept raising her rent and she could no longer afford to stay in her apartment. Eventually she turned to the family shelter Bethany House, telling her 8- and 10-year-old sons they would be moving.

“They wanted to go home, and I had to tell them, ‘Well, right now this is going to be home until we find a new place.’ Bethany House came through for me,” she says. “They set up school transportation for where they were still able to go to school. It was stressful but we stuck in there and got through it.”

Bethany House helped Sadia get back on her feet with a new job and apartment.

The story is similar for Cortney Smith. She was living in Dry Ridge, Ky., and was in and out of the hospital and her 17-year-old son was having trouble managing things. There was also a court case with her landlord that she later won. But still she faced homelessness.

Cortney realized how fortunate she was when Found House had a place for her at a hotel, the same organization which had sheltered her pets.

Now Cortney is comfortably settled in a new apartment and living on her own. “It’s extremely hard to find a handicap accessible apartment and our landlord put in some really nice railings,” she says.

Families are staying longer in shelter than before the pandemic

Sadia and Cortney were in shelter — hotels during the pandemic — for five months. Most people helped by Bethany, Found House and others stay an average of 74 days. Pre-COVID, it was 53 days, according to Strategies to End Homelessness.

CEO Kevin Finn says, “It has become increasingly difficult to get families out of shelter which then means that the beds aren’t becoming available for other families that need to get into shelter. And that just sort of created a bottleneck in the system.”

Finn says only about 8% get into a shelter and 11% are helped by a prevention program. That leaves 80% who get nothing. It was 70% pre-COVID.

Bethany House opens a new shelter in Bond Hill

The shortage of beds and inability to get families the services they need is why the opening of Bethany House is so welcome. The first families move in Saturday. A ribbon-cutting is scheduled for Sept. 29 at 10 a.m., and a community open house is planned for Sept. 30 from 3-7 p.m. The address is 4769 Reading Road in Bond Hill.

Murals were painted by ArtWorks inside Bethany House
Ann Thompson
Murals were painted by ArtWorks inside Bethany House

For decades, Bethany House operated out of three buildings in Westwood and South Fairmount, housing 36-38 families. The new building can take in 43 families, each with their own room.

“We built many of the rooms to join to another bedroom because it is not unusual for Bethany House to serve a family of eight, nine, 10, 11 or 12 individuals,” says CEO Peg Dierkers.

Here are some of the things Bethany will provide:

  • Separate circulation systems to keep cold, flu and other germs in single spaces
  • Hands-free handwashing stations and other COVID precautions
  • Spaces for outside organizations that will help families get back on their feet
  • A variety of bathrooms: “No matter who you are and what your family situation is or how you identify,” says Dierkers.
  • Medical exam rooms
  • Mailboxes for each family
  • Hydration stations
One of the hydration stations at Bethany House. (by law facilities also have to have regular drinking fountains)
Ann Thompson
One of the hydration stations at Bethany House. (by law facilities also have to have regular drinking fountains)

“Our families are very suspicious of tap water, which I can understand. Many of the communities or housing that they’ve lived in had lead-based pipes,” Dierkers says, “Certainly they hear about other communities like Flint, Michigan, you know, many people were toxically poisoned.”

YWCA new shelter to open next summer

The YWCA, housing survivors of domestic violence, doesn't have a new building yet, but will have one next summer. Director of Residential Services Nicole Williams explains the women and their families are just returning to congregate living after being housed in hotels during COVID. She had hoped the new building would be finished in December.

“With the work labor force and the increased amount of materials, what we have projected for the budget grew exponentially,” she says. “So that project is still going on and we are also doing some capital campaigning for additional funds, but that project is still in progress.”

Williams says when the new building opens in the summer of 2023 in Avondale, it will house 70 families up from 30-40. Each will have their own space.

Found House is looking for solutions

Found House, formerly the Interfaith Hospitality Network, is still trying to find its way. Churches housed and provided meals to eight to 12 families before the pandemic. That's now down to four.

“This has been a lovely model for us,” says CEO Stacey Burge. “COVID turned it on its head because this model, of course, is about big groups of people all being together in shared spaces.”

Originally 25 host congregations and 100 support congregations provided meals to families and let them spend the night at their places of worship. Following the pandemic, Burge says, “We’ve had several congregations say ‘We can just no longer, we’re no longer big enough to support this mission anymore.’ “ The number of host congregations is down to 10.

Found House says it is looking at recruitment, finding a more traditional static site and blending that with congregations who can continue to host. But all of that takes time, says Burge.

What does the future look like?

In the meantime, Hamilton County is trying to prevent as much homelessness as it can. Strategies to Prevent Homelessness’ Finn points to one positive — the county has set aside $5 million of stimulus money specifically for homeless prevention.

“These are resources we don’t normally have, so I’m optimistic that in the future we’ll be able to prevent more families from needing to come into shelter and that will reduce some of the burden on the system,” he says.

Ann Thompson has decades of journalism experience in the Greater Cincinnati market and brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her reporting.