COVID-19 and Cincinnati Homelessness: An Update

COVID-19 and Cincinnati Homelessness

The world is squarely in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. And we, as the Continuum of Care for Greater Cincinnati/ Hamilton County, need to assist those experiencing homelessness now or who about to become homeless. And we need to look ahead.

How our Shelter Operators Responded to the COVID-19 Crisis

The most immediate need at the outset of the virus was to create social distancing however and wherever possible. Which meant that the number of people residing in our traditional congregate shelters had to be significantly reduced. Some buildings even needed to be vacated. Here’s why.

Family Shelters are mainly congregate buildings in which multiple families may be in one room, there are shared bathrooms, shared eating areas, kids playing together. Our partners were rightfully concerned that by the time a resident tested positive, the entire shelter (including the agency staff) would have already be exposed, and at risk. Several congregate family shelter buildings were closed, and each resident family was placed in its own hotel/motel room.

Likewise, in the shelters for Single Adults, clients were unable to achieve any sort of social distancing, many residents are elderly, and some have underlying medical conditions. The most vulnerable people were moved into hotel/motel rooms, reducing exposure as quickly as possible. Fewer clients under one roof allows those still in the congregate facilities to socially distance. But hotel/motel rooms are not a permanent solution and the funding will run out.

What’s happening now?

It’s our goal to make sure the agencies have what they need to serve their clients. Our agency partners are still out daily doing street outreach, working with our unsheltered clients. Shelter operators are working non-stop and doing amazing work to keep the shelters open for as many clients as is safe. The biggest system change is utilizing hotel/motel. We’re working with the Family Shelters daily to plan for what comes next. And who can predict when is “next” during a pandemic?

Is the traditional homeless shelter no longer a viable option to keep clients safely housed? That’s the question many CoCs across the nation are struggling with now.

While homelessness locally has remained stable the last five years, we can expect to see a big uptick this year and next because of COVID-19 and for multiple reasons. We often say many families are one job loss, one medical emergency away from homelessness. Unfortunately, we’re about to see that reality for many local families if we can’t intervene and prevent it from happening.

Most people who lose their own housing don’t immediately become homeless

That is, enter a homeless shelter or sleep unsheltered, on the street or in a car. Instead they “couch surf” “double up” by staying with friends or family as long as possible. They call us for help when they’re asked to leave that last couch and they’re out of options.

Normally it takes about a year or more for someone – who hasn’t otherwise gotten back on their feet and into housing – to find themselves on the street or entering a shelter. Now, however, people are often being asked to leave their doubled-up situation at a faster rate than we’ve seen in the past. One, because people are afraid of contracting the virus. And two, because school summer break came in March.

Summer Surge Came Early

We normally see an increase in family homelessness each summer. “Summer Surge” as it’s known. Often families with unstable housing are able to stay with family or friends when school is in session. Once school ends and kids are home all day and underfoot, they’re often asked to leave, with no place to go.

We always see that uptick, but this year Summer Break came early with schools in Ohio closing, moving online in March. (Which created additional stress and problems for the parent. Such as loss of school-served breakfast and lunch for the children, needing to homeschool, accessing online lessons without internet service, and more).

Evictions on the Rise

Hamilton County has long been experiencing an affordable housing crisis, a crisis that predates COVID-19. As a community, we are lacking 40,000 affordable units. Now, many residents can’t afford their rent because they were laid off and cannot qualify for or are waiting for unemployment compensation.

While many states put a moratorium on residential evictions at this time, Ohio, for one, did not. Housing court was closed for a period of time. But landlords were still able to file to get the process underway to evict a tenant unable to pay his or her rent.

The Legal Aid Society also reported an uptick in “self-help evictions”. That is landlords changing locks and turning off utilities, forcing people to move. As part of the local COVID-19 response, we administrated new Eviction Prevention funding. Both from the Ohio Housing Finance Agency and the Coalition on Housing and Homelessness in Ohio.

The program, in partnership with the Legal Aid Society, will provide rental assistance for qualifying households that are facing eviction. Our goal is to help stabilize the housing of participating families by paying 2-3 months’ rent.


With the crisis came a number of new and increased funding sources from the Federal, State, and local governments. And from our generous local Foundation partners. Funding we are thankful to have, but don’t know how long it will last or if there will be more of it.

Unfortunately, due to the direct economic impact of COVID-19 and the loss of revenue for the City of Cincinnati, we’ve had some of our funding cut by as much as 25%. Funding specifically for our Shelter Diversion Program: the most cost-effective homelessness prevention program with the best outcomes.

What will homelessness look like later this year? In 2021?

The National Alliance to End Homelessness calls homelessness a Lagging Indicator. That is, after an economic downturn or national emergency – all of the issues we’re facing right now –homelessness will increase.

According to the Federal government, almost 40% of Americans in households making less than $40,000 a year lost a job in March. In the first six weeks of the pandemic-induced economic shutdown, 30 million people lost jobs.

We know the number of families and individuals calling our Central Access Point Helpline for assistance will increase.

We will do our best to ensure we are able to help prevent as many people as possible from experiencing homelessness. And, however possible assist those currently experiencing homelessness.

Thank you all for your passion, support, and hard work to end homelessness. It’s important and it makes a real difference in the lives of our neighbors.

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