What Will It Take for Hamilton County to Solve Its Homelessness Problem?

According to the most recent numbers from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, there are just over seven thousand homeless people in Cincinnati. To be specific, there were 7,062 people either on the street or in a shelter in 2013.

This number can be a bit misleading since it does not include the many more people who have recently lost their home and are now staying with a family member or friend, or are unable to be counted at all.

The way in which local organizations are handling this situation is different today than it was decades ago. In the past the trend was to provide what experts refer to as site-based units. This has changed over the years to a model more akin to Section 8 housing vouchers, where subsidies are provided for people to go find housing out on the open market.

According to the Strategies to End Homelessness, approximately 97% of the 3,300 people in permanent housing in Cincinnati are in these scattered sites. Part of the reason for the change is due to changing funding priorities, while another large factor is that many people reject the idea of having supportive housing built in their neighborhood.

This has caused problems for local leaders who view the Homeless to Homes plan, which includes the construction of five new shelters, as part of a long-term solution. While the shelters are new and improved, they also typically include an overall reduction in total units provided. So with the total number of units and the number of homeless remaining constant, some are wondering what the ultimate solution is.

Salt Lake City has recently received national praise for their homelessness program where they simply have built and provided housing units for every homeless person in their community. It is a nod to past techniques, but one that appears to be getting results.

While it has received the attention, not everyone is convinced that Salt Lake City’s approach is all that unique, or all that comprehensive.

“It’s about giving people housing,” Kevin Finn, President and CEO of Strategies to End Homelessness, told UrbanCincy. “If homelessness is the problem, then providing housing is the solution.”

The problem, Finn continued, is that the vast majority of the funds that are provided by the Federal government has strings attached and almost never allows for prevention programs. And with homelessness typically being what Finn calls a short-term crisis, a strong investment in prevention might actually be more effective and economically sustainable.

“Somewhere around 80% of people who become homeless end up getting out of homelessness on their own,” noted Finn. “Unfortunately, we seem to be discouraged from even using the money that could be used for prevention on prevention.”

While Finn acknowledges that simply providing housing to those who truly need it is more effective than anything else, he also is quick to note that taking preventative measures can be far more cost-effective.

In Hamilton County, for example, it costs approximately $3,300 per year to provide supportive housing to someone. At the same time, it costs around $1,300 per year to shelter a person on a temporary basis, and just $1,100 annually to prevent someone from becoming homeless.

“I would agree that Salt Lake City has the right model for those that are homeless, but I would say that prevention is even more effective than that,” Finn emphasized. “The real challenge is to figure out what the right solution is for each individual person.”

Further complicating the prevention approach is its inconsistent funding levels from the Federal government. According to Strategies to End Homelessness, virtually no funding was provided for prevention prior to 2009, but then the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act infused local agencies with around $2.2 million annually over the next three years. At its peak in 2011, it resulted in the prevention of 2,800 people from becoming homeless.

When the stimulus program wound down, those funds went away with it; and those numbers have been in rapid decline ever since. Such inconsistencies make developing long-term plans and strategies next to impossible.

“The issue we struggle with is trying to reduce homelessness when the landscape of the resources is constantly changing,” said Finn. “From 2012 to 2013 homelessness increased in Hamilton County; but it was less than 1%, and considering our resources had been decimated it was a bit of a moral victory.”

Beyond just the funding issues, understanding the problem and recognizing the actual need for each person could yield even greater performance and savings.

First and foremost, Finn says the goal should be to determine who is close to homelessness, but can be prevented from reaching it. From there he says that it is important to figure out who has recently become homeless, and what level of assistance they need – short- or long-term. Not doing so could create the risk of providing the funds for someone to have long-term support, even though short-term support is all that is needed.

In order to tackle each case appropriately, local leaders are developing an early stage approach that is in line with nationally recognized assessment process for determining these details that can often be difficult to uncover.

Further assisting those efforts are the already established programs operating county-wide, including the Central Access Point hotline that allows for people to call and give notification that they are at risk.

Even with all of the challenges, Finn remains optimistic about the future. The City of Cincinnati has recently increased its amount of funding for human services, and has designated reducing homelessness as a priority for those funds. In addition to that, the United Way of Greater Cincinnati is now providing $150,000 per year for prevention efforts.

New data is scheduled to be released in the near future with updated figures on the region’s homeless population. While it is not yet public what those numbers are, it is expected that they will be along a similar trajectory as recent years. The hope, however, is that this trajectory starts to change sooner rather than later.

“Ultimately if we can prevent people from ever coming in, then we can save a lot of money and save that household the trauma of becoming homeless,” Finn concluded.

Feds Provide $15.4M to Combat Homelessness in Hamilton County

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has awarded $15.4 million to Strategies to End Homelessness. The money was part of a larger $1.8 billion nationwide distribution to support services for the homeless, and providing housing and emergency shelters to those that have been living on the streets.

The funds for Cincinnati will go to support 16 local agencies, establish a new rapid rehousing for families program, and two new permanent supportive housing projects for the chronically homeless.

Strategies to End Homelessness was established in 2007 by the City of Cincinnati and Hamilton County to lead a comprehensive system of care amongst 30 non-profit organizations working. The organization says that their goal is to work with these organizations to reduce homelessness 50% in the city and county by 2017.

Pointing to accomplishments like a centralized emergency shelter hotline, homelessness prevention, street outreach, and establishing emergency shelter and housing solutions; leadership says that the community has been able to increase the number of people served in supportive housing programs by 100% since the organization was formed nearly eight years ago.

Kevin Finn, President and CEO of Strategies to End Homelessness, explained to UrbanCincy that the HUD funds they just received are extremely limited relative to the need, and are awarded on a competitive basis. In fact, he says that there was no guarantee that the community would get any assistance at all.

Due to the nature of the program, Finn says that the majority of the funds will work as renewal funding for existing programs at existing agency partners.

“This funding is competitively awarded by HUD and was earned by organizations in our community that have successfully helped many people out of homelessness and back to self-sufficiency,” Finn wrote in a prepared statement. “If we are going to reduce homelessness, we must offer successful housing solutions; HUD funded these programs based on their proven results.”

The new rapid rehousing program will work through a partnership with the Family Housing Partnership that includes Interfaith Hospitality Network, Bethany House Services, Salvation Army, and YWCA to build new rehousing capacity that is specifically made available to families. Nationally, HUD has found that 37% of all homeless people belonged to a family, and that 1.6 million children experience homelessness each year.

Finn says that the permanent supportive housing program will work similarly, but instead coordinate with the Talbert House, Over-the-Rhine Community Housing, Center for Independent Living Options, Freestore Foodbank, Excel Development and Caracole to determine where new capacity is most needed.

Strategies to End Homelessness will work with these organizations, for both new programs, to sort out exactly how much funding to distribute to each participating organization over the next six to eight months, with the funding from HUD being delivered approximately a year from now.

Hamilton County Could Plant Four Trees For Every Assault Rifle Received Through DoD Program

The scenes on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri have caused national outrage not only for the racial tension over the killing of a young black man by the local police, but also due to the overtly militarized response to the rioting. The City of Ferguson did not get their military supplies by accident, instead they utilized a government program that sells local police forces these items at a discounted rate.

Beginning in 1997 the U.S. Department of Defense authorized the 1033 program, which allows local police forces to buy surplus military items. The intent of the program is to  help local law enforcement officials with counter-drug and later counter-terrorism efforts. Over 8,000 federal and state law enforcement agencies participate in the program, and, to date, over $5 billion worth of items have been distributed to local police departments across the country. This includes, but is not limited to, assault rifles, body armor and armored vehicles.

The folks over at NextCity developed an infographic that illustrates what some of these military items could buy in terms of urban infrastructure. It’s easy to see that some of the more expensive items could translate into huge improvements for local public infrastructure repairs and fixes.

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Hamilton County has also participated in the program. The available data covers the last ten years and has a few noteworthy items.

The largest find in the database is a 2006 transfer of 158 5.56mm rifles for $499 each. The rifles have a total value of $78,842. Additionally, Hamilton County received night vision equipment totaling at least $5,795.

Adding even more to the Hamilton County Sheriff’s arsenal, 23 7.62mm rifles, at $138 each, were received for a total of $3,174; and 62 more 5.56mm rifles were received in 2010 at $120 each for $7,440.

In total, the database shows that Hamilton County has obtained a total of 243 assault rifles for a value of $82,760; making it the largest transfer on the list.

While the total amount may not seem like a huge impact on municipal budgets,  it is easy to imagine what even this sum of money could be used for if it was spent on more peaceful projects to keep citizens safe, such as creating more bike lanes, fixing potholes, streetlights or installing stop signs.

One such example locally is that the amount of money spent to give Hamilton County assault rifles could have covered the cost to plant more than 200 street trees.

It is important to note, however, that not all the stuff the county is getting is weapons. Hamilton County has also received medical devices and supplies, clothing, furniture, and other non-combat related accessories from the program.

Support Continues to Grow for Daily Train Service Between Cincinnati and Chicago

Midwest Regional Rail ServiceOhio is surprisingly one of the nation’s least-served states by intercity passenger rail service, but All Aboard Ohio is working to change that.

Perhaps best well known for their fruitless advocacy for the 3C Corridor – an intercity passenger rail line that would have linked Ohio’s largest cities – All Aboard Ohio has regained relevancy as of late. While continually advocating for improvements on existing Amtrak service across the northern reaches of the state, the non-profit organization has also become increasingly involved with efforts to establish rail service between Columbus and Chicago, and Cincinnati and Chicago.

Columbus currently has no connections to the capital of the economically robust Great Lakes region, but Cincinnati does, albeit ever so slightly. As of now, Cincinnatians can get to Chicago via the scrappy three-day-a-week train service offered on Amtrak’s Cardinal Route. In addition to not being daily service, trains infamously arrive and depart in the middle of the night.

This is something, however, that area leaders and All Aboard Ohio officials are working to change. One potential example, they say, is to extend existing service offered on Amtrak’s Hoosier Route. The combination of Amtrak’s Cardinal and Hoosier routes offers Indianapolis daily service to Chicago. From there, the hope is to make gradual improvements to bring the service up to 110mph speeds.

“There is a buzz and excitement in southwest Ohio about connecting to Indy and Chicago that is palpable,” explained Derek Bauman, SW Ohio Director for All Aboard Ohio. “Even those that have not necessarily been fans of previous rail projects see the necessity of connecting to Chicago – the business and commerce epicenter of the U.S. between the coasts.”

The energy Bauman speaks of was recently seen at an area meeting held by All Aboard Ohio at the Christian Moerlein Tap Room in Over-the-Rhine. According to Ken Prendergast, Executive Director of All Aboard Ohio, such meetings are typically pretty dull, but this was not the case in Cincinnati.

“Our free local meetings are usually less extravagant than our statewide meetings, and are more akin to briefing or coordination gatherings,” Prendergast told UrbanCincy. “They generally only draw a dozen or two dozen people, so this meeting’s attendance was pretty good.”

All Aboard Ohio welcomed Cincinnati City Councilwoman Amy Murray (R) as their special guest. Over the past few months Murray has taken on a bit of a leadership role in the discussion about establishing daily rail service to Indianapolis and onward to Chicago. Her leadership has also come at a time when Hamilton County Commissioners, in a surprising fashion, voted unanimously in favor of studying the establishment of such service.

Bauman says that All Aboard Ohio has been working with the OKI Regional Council of Governments on a potential scope and funding plan for a feasibility study on the manner, following the unanimous vote from Greg Hartmann (R), Todd Portune (D) and Chris Monzel (R). He says that the group has also been meeting with local jurisdictions and business leaders to grow support even further.

“A big part of this is educating stakeholders on what our competitor regions throughout the Midwest are doing,” said Bauman. “For example, Detroit has three Amtrak roundtrips a day, Milwaukee has seven, St. Louis has five, and even Carbondale, IL has three. Simply put, we are being left behind.”

Some of that recent outreach has included both Hamilton and Oxford – communities that sit along the existing Cardinal Route and would be prime candidates for stops in a case where service is enhanced. To that extent, both communities, in addition to Miami University, have expressed their support for the effort. Now, according to Bauman, the next steps are to reach out to Xavier University and the University of Cincinnati.

“As we continue to work with business and government leaders toward establishing at least daily service to Cincinnati, coordinating with our regional institutions of higher learning will be a growing and vital piece of our advocacy partnership focus,” Bauman explained. “Bringing back proper inter-city rail services will be transformative for our region and positively impact the lives of people.”

Episode #43: Fall Update (Part 1)

Hamilton County Board of ElectionsOn the 43rd episode of The UrbanCincy Podcast, Randy, Jake, John and Travis discuss the results of the 2014 election. We also speculate on what county issues might end up on the ballot in 2015, including a potential sales tax increase / property tax rollback to fund the county’s new digs in Mt. Airy.

We also discuss Kevin Flynn’s plan to fund streetcar operations using a combination of sources, including parking meter revenues.