Butler County may invest up to $8M on fighting homelessness

Groups must submit proposals for how money might be spent on growing issue.

The Butler County commissioners have agreed to invest a substantial amount of federal pandemic relief funds — possibly as much at $8 million — to help jurisdictions countywide to fight the issue of homelessness.

The commissioners haven’t voted on the issue yet, but after a debate over the homelessness issue Monday with Hamilton officials, Commissioner Don Dixon said he would like to commit $7 million to $8 million of the remaining American Rescue Plan Act funds to the problem.

He said the various communities dealing with higher public safety and other costs associated with the homeless population have a better handle on their needs, so he wants them to give proposals.

“I would suggest that we sit down and have a conversation and let those communities give us a blueprint on how they would handle it,” Dixon said. “And we take that $7 or $8 million and maybe we can start something and get some traction and give some immediate help to them.”

He said they still need to continue to lobby their state and federal lawmakers to pony up funds for the problem that goes far beyond Butler County.

Commissioner Cindy Carpenter said she has been meeting with officials in both Hamilton and Middletown and “that would be amazing” and she fully supports the move, but she suggested $4 million as a possible investment.

Dixon told the Journal-News he offered the idea because officials in the two biggest cities have been telling them lately they are at the “breaking point” now. The topic has been big this summer because of ongoing discussions about a planned Emergency Mental Health Crisis Stabilization Center tentatively slated to go in the now-vacant county nursing home in Hamilton. The cities believe it will heighten an already unmanageable homeless population.

Hamilton City Manager Joshua Smith, Mayor Pat Moeller and other city officials were at the Monday meeting because the commissioners were voting on memoranda of understanding with three wrap-around behavioral health service providers for 50 additional Shelter Plus Care vouchers.

A year ago, the commissioners approved applying for 90 additional Permanent Supportive Housing program vouchers — known locally as Shelter Plus Care — that provide rental assistance and treatment for the homeless who also suffer from mental illness. The county currently has 63 vouchers and were approved for 50 more.

City officials worry programs like this make them a magnet for homeless people seeking out areas where there are plentiful services.

“We walk a very fine line and at some point we have to say enough is enough,” Smith told the commissioners. “Not because we are not compassionate, but because we already have a population we have to take care of that we don’t even have the resources today to take care of. I can tell you from a public safety standpoint we’re at a breaking point; we have to figure out how to improve this or hire more people.”

The MOU agreements were the final phase of process. The program is paid for with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) dollars and the county had to apply for the extra vouchers through the state.

The existing 63 vouchers are covering the cost for 72 housing units because the grant recipients must pay 30% of their income toward their own rent. The new $1.3 million contract covers $1.1 million for rent, $112,889 in administrative costs and $75,510 for wrap-around support services from the behavioral health providers for the existing and new vouchers.

Participants may choose where they want to live as long as landlords are amenable and eligible under HUD rules. Mindy Muller, president and CEO of Community Development Professionals, has been administering the federal program for the county for 15 years.

She told the Journal-News that knowing the concerns officials in Hamilton and Middletown have, they made a concerted effort to broaden the base of landlords who agree to participate in the program. She said until the vouchers are dispersed she can’t say where the new participants will be living.

The mayor said many of the homeless who are giving the city so many problems are those who flout the law and say “I choose to live by my own rules.” Muller said the people in the program are not exacerbating the problem.

“I think this is part of the solution, it’s not adding to the problem,” Muller said. “There is a very strict application process for these vouchers, these are not people who don’t want help. They are the people who have made that choice I’m no longer going to live on the streets, I want to get help.”

The MOU item was approved although Dixon voted no and suggested the larger solution. He said he plans to make a motion next week to establish the program using ARPA funds. He said County Administrator Judi Boyko will be collecting some information for them but his idea is to distribute funds according to demonstrated need based on homeless population numbers.

“I’m not going to tell them how to run their railroad, they deal with it 24/7, 365, I don’t claim to have that hands-on knowledge of the situation in each community,” Dixon said. “So it’s up to them now.”

Commissioner T.C. Rogers didn’t suggest an amount, but said from the start he wanted to devote some ARPA funds to helping the less fortunate.

“I believe that we will give them significant resources to help with their problem,” he told the Journal-News.

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