Butler County applying for more homeless housing vouchers

Butler County is asking the state for 100 more Shelter Plus Care vouchers to secure stable housing for homeless residents who are mentally ill, but the commissioners say the issue definitely needs a broader discussion.

The Permanent Supportive Housing program — known locally as Shelter Plus Care — provides rental assistance and treatment for the homeless who also suffer from mental illness, the county currently has 63 vouchers costing $529,219. Mindy Muller, chair of the Butler County Housing and Homeless Coalition, told the Journal-News the cost for 100 more rent vouchers will be $890,400 and providers from the behavioral health community provide in-kind services for wrap-around programs.

There are 137 eligible people on a waiting list and 189 others coming out of the criminal justice system who have been identified as potential candidates for the program.

“Those are really compelling numbers when you look at the level of need,” Muller said. “We’re not bringing people in, in order to get these vouchers. These are meeting the needs of people who are here and don’t have a housing option. So it’s just solving some of that gap that currently exists.”

The program is paid for with U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) dollars and the county has to apply for the extra vouchers through the state. Muller said the funds won’t be available until August 2023 and they are working to find landlords throughout the county willing to accept renters from the program.

County Administrator Judi Boyko said there are approximately 152,000 housing units countywide and 45,000 rental units, the vacancy rate is around 5.4% and the majority are in Hamilton and Middletown.

It is not fully subsidized housing, the participants must pay 30% of their income toward their own rent.

“Many participants work, we have people that are getting veterans benefits, we have some people that are elderly that are on Social Security,” Muller said. “It runs the gamut just as it does with any of us in the community.”

She said the participants are monitored to make sure they are stable and over the past five years — the county has had the program for more than 10 years — there has been a 94% success rate of people achieving housing stability.

“The idea is we’re providing housing and support services so eligibility is people who have experienced homelessness and they have a qualifying disability,” Muller said. “The nature of who is served are people that have had struggles stabilizing their housing and have had a persistent history of that. So this program provides wrap-around services, support services, we’re checking in with people, there’s a team approach to make sure people are stabile, that they’re well, they’re having a quality of life you and I would want to enjoy so they can stay in their housing units, stay good neighbors.”

All three commissioners approved starting the process on Thursday to get the additional vouchers, but Commissioner Don Dixon voiced grave concerns about the program.

“I’m sympathetic to the issue, you talk about being concerned about the person we’re trying to place in there, I’m concerned about the people who live there,” Dixon said. “I also had a conversation with the city manager in Hamilton and he reminded me that these kind of particular placements cause a lot of expense on the city’s safety services, more calls, more ambulances, more disturbance.”

Commissioner Cindy Carpenter, who chairs one of committees convened countywide to tackle the homeless issue, said not all cases are extreme.

“You’re hearing about challenging cases, not all of the cases are necessarily challenging like that,” Carpenter said. “The Shelter Plus Care, the intention is people are getting the care they need, the medication, mental health counseling.”

Muller said the participants can choose where they want to live — as long as landlords agree to participate and the apartment fits the parameters of the program — and there are participants in Fairfield, Hamilton, Middletown and some of the townships. Dixon is concerned the big cities would be overburdened and some of the townships are too remote for people access services.

Dixon told the Journal-News if the program is serving people with severe mental illness they should be in one facility — not disbursed haphazardly throughout the county — where they can be monitored and receive services right there. He said “they should” when asked whether HUD might pay for that.

“The fact is the county shouldn’t be in that business anyway, the state is the one that shut down all the mental facilities, they shut them down and said we’re not going to have them anymore,” Dixon said “We’ll give you a little more money to do some mental health and stuff and you guys take care of it. It’s the same old bait and switch deal.”

Assuming the county is successful in getting the additional vouchers, officials have more than a year to line up landlords and fine tune the program. They are not required to accept the vouchers if they are awarded.

“I think it’s a really tough issue that deserves some out of the box thinking and that rather than burden our taxpayers with this forever, it’s not our responsibility. Somewhere along the line they say it’s HUD money, it’s not our money, well it is our money,” Dixon said. “The state and the federal government need to get their head out of the ground — that’s a nice way of putting it — and figure out another way to handle this, because we’re going to spend million of dollars for 326 people.”

Carpenter said they need to take a “deeper dive” into the numbers and issues and figure out, among other things, which people might need more supervision than this program provides. But she said inaction is not an option.

“The other question is what does it cost us if we don’t do anything,” Carpenter said. “We have these people cycling in 5, 6, 7, 8 times into the jail are we paying more for them by not serving them than we would be if we were serving them.”

Commissioner T.C. Rogers said he was initially dubious about applying for additional vouchers until he chaired Carpenter’s housing committee, “I might have had some preconceived notions but actually I’m enlightened now” he says he supports the move but with a caveat.

“Assuming we have some input into the criteria, I can assure you I want this for Butler County residents, not somebody that moved from another county a month or even a year earlier just to get the program,” Rogers said.

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