Butler County cities say homeless population is draining resources, seek help from state leaders

‘My eyes have been opened’ to the problem, senator says.

Butler County leaders are asking state lawmakers for help with the issue of homelessness, but if it includes locating more housing facilities in Hamilton and Middletown, officials there say they are already overburdened.

State Sen. George Lang and Rep. Sara Carruthers met with a group of elected officials from the county’s two biggest cities and a host of others about the homelessness issue on Monday. There were pleas for the state to ante up funds for more sheltering capacity, and city officials said they can’t handle more drifters who drain public safety services, and sometimes harm businesses.

Lang told the Journal-News he convened the meeting after touring homeless camps with city officials from Hamilton and Middletown, in response to their requests for help.

“It’s with a high degree of enthusiasm, excitement and motivation, I hope over time we can come to a way to address the homeless problem that we have in Butler County,” Lang told the group. “And it is a problem, my eyes have been opened ... my focus is going to be on what can we do to help the business community because it’s a tremendous negative impact on the business community.”

Tammi Ector, executive director of Serve City in Hamilton and chair of the Butler County Housing and Homeless Coalition, gave a “spirited” presentation to the group, opening her remarks by singing “She Works Hard for Money.”

“If we’re honest with ourselves, everyone in this room has been through something — if you didn’t have support you could just as easily end up homeless and in the same situation. It’s happening in West Chester, don’t be fooled into thinking it’s not,” she said. “It’s not just Hamilton, it’s West Chester and Oxford as well. Most Americans are one paycheck away from the bottom falling out.”

She noted she was homeless briefly and warned “the NIMBY mindset not in my backyard, guess what they’re not going away, they’re going to be in our backyard but they can be in our backyard housed instead of on the street.”

“If we build the capacity to serve our own citizens, to help them stabilize instead of turning a blind eye and burying our head in the sand we can help businesses to thrive,” Ector said, adding they need 150 more permanent housing units based on a gap analysis.

Butler County Commissioner Cindy Carpenter said the “gap analysis” shows the county needs 274 permanent supportive housing units, some are already in the pipeline and they are asking the state for the balance.

To get federal grant funding, counties must do what is called a “point in time” count every January. Volunteers go out counting heads and the PIT count for the homeless in shelters this year was 246 and unsheltered was 20, according to Marcus Roth, a spokesman for the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio said.

He said the unsheltered number is just a sampling and if the number is extrapolated to the entire county that number is 68 according to his agency. He said it is extremely difficult to get a true homeless count at any given time.

“It is inherently difficult to count people experiencing homelessness,” Roth said. “People really don’t want to stand up and be counted during maybe the worst moments of their lives so we do the best we can. Also when you look at the data this way, this point in time count, it’s kind of an undercount because it doesn’t reflect the cyclical nature of homelessness.”

Crisis center at core of debate

The issue of homelessness is more in the spotlight lately because of a proposed Emergency Mental Health Crisis Stabilization Center currently planned for theformer county nursing home on Princeton Road in Hamilton. City officials say city services are already taxed to the limit and are concerned the center may require more police and fire personnel.

The county mental health and addiction services board is spearheading the project, and Executive Director Scott Rasmus got an earful recently when he visited the Hamilton city council. Officials say the city is already inundated with homeless people who are being dropped off there and the new facility would exacerbate the situation.

They also feel such a facility should be more centrally located within the county.

We’ve got to be very cognizant of where these folks are going to go after they’re stabilized, it’s just going to cause an increase that unfortunately we are unprepared to handle,” said Hamilton Vice Mayor Michael Ryan. “My concern is those who are going to be dropped off, those that are going to be brought into our city and after they are stabilized where’s the follow-up after that.

“Who’s going to keep track of their progress, where are they going to go. What happens if they just decide I don’t want to do this anymore, is the very folks that dropped them going to come back here and take them home.”

The Butler County commissioners have provided the vacant nursing home for the stabilization center and $3 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding to get the program started. The plan is to start with 10 observation chairs and 10 private rooms to offer “a continuum of care for non-violent individuals experiencing a serious and immediate mental health need.”

After patients are stabilized in the observation area, they are either referred out for wrap-around services or admitted for a few days for further in-house treatment.

Rasmus told the Journal-News the reason he has become so immersed in the homeless problem is the proposed center, even though addressing homelessness is not one of his board’s responsibilities by law.

“I’m looking at the system, I realize system capacity may be an issue,” Rasmus said. “So I’m addressing it now.”

Homelessness a costly issue

Middletown officials have been finding different ways of tackling its homelessness issues, and Councilman Zack Ferrell — who had to leave the meeting early — told the Journal-News it hasn’t been cheap.

He estimated the city has spent $3.5 million dealing withit over the last few years, and that means taxpayers have paid bill of roughly $17,000 per homeless person.

“Middletown and the taxpayers are covering tens of thousands of dollars a year per homeless person ... ,” Ferrell said. “So how does that make any sense? We are a caring, giving community, not just our council but all our citizens, however we can’t do it by ourselves.”

A lot of anecdotal evidence was given describing the various facets of the issue, and Fairfield Twp. Trustee Shannon Hartkemeyer suggested they do a deeper dive into the hard facts.

“I heard there’s some discrepancy in understanding what the actual needs are,” she said. “I heard we occasionally get drop-offs from Clermont or other places and I heard we get a lot of drop-offs from other places. I would encourage that we get the actual data.”

Lang and Carruthers told the group they want to see that data before they can discuss state action.

As for the request to increase housing capacity?

“Not if it is going to increase the burden on the local communities,” Lang told the Journal-News. “We heard testimony, they the experts that deal with this on a daily basis, that it will provide a burden. I’m not willing to increase the problem.”

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