Butler County homeless: New plans target issues as residents raise concerns

New initiatives in Butler County are targeting the homeless issue with efforts to increase affordable housing and connect people with critical services.

The issue has raised neighborhood and business concerns in Hamilton and Middletown in the past year, and officials are working to determine the size of the population and seek funding for help.

The annual “point-in-time” count of people living on the streets in Butler County nearly doubled this year, but Homeless Coalition officials say the number is deceiving.

Counters found 70 people living in the frigid elements on Jan. 21, up from 38 people they counted a year ago. The county is required to count the homeless once per year to receive federal funding from the Department of Housing and Human Development.

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“We did a better job doing the count this year, it was much more organized at the state level,” said Mindy Muller, with the Butler County Housing and Homeless Coalition. “They did an app which allowed for a less cumbersome counting process, so the numbers are higher than they have been, but also the count was done differently so it’s not an apples to apples comparison.”

The total number of homeless people, including those living in shelters, is not yet available. The Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio tabulates the total count for HUD, and Continuum of Care director Erica Mulryan said those figures won’t be available until July at the earliest. The total number of homeless residents last year was 298.

Hamilton Municipal Court Judge Dan Gattermeyer recently started what he calls his “empowerment” docket to help homeless people, mainly those charged with criminal trespass, get back on their feet and hopefully into stable housing. He runs the docket once per month and anticipates helping 15 to 20 people each court day.

“We’re really doing everything we can to encourage people to show up here, so that we can get them connected up with agencies they might get help from or treatment providers that might address issues that caused them to be homeless,” Gattermeyer said. “We’re just kind of feeling our way through it right now.”

The criminal defendants can avoid jail time by participating in the specialized docket.

“Thirty days in jail on a criminal trespass might not seem like a lot unless you have to do it,” Gattermeyer said.

Representatives from treatment providers like Access Counseling, Transitional Living Inc. and Job and Family Services (JFS) and local pastors have come to court to help the homeless sign up for benefits, and landlords have offered to help.

A state move to an internet-based system for signing up for services such as food stamps and job assistance allows JFS to visit the court to help in person, said Executive Director Bill Morrison. Many homeless have lost their benefits “because they’re homeless and they don’t have an address and they can’t get mail,” he said.

“We’re trying to catch up with them at the places they are, get them enrolled and make them aware of programming we have like at the OhioMeansJobs Center and try to give them an opportunity to lift themselves up,” Morrison said.

A JFS staff member is assigned to visiting community meal centers and other places where the homeless are at night and other non-business hours.

One such event was organized almost two years ago. The homeless population living in a tent city known as “The Hill” in Hamilton was in the spotlight in 2018 after some business owners asked the city to remove the trespassers. Butler County and a variety of service organizations offered resource fairs for the homeless in the tent camp, helping them find shelter, medical treatment and jobs.

Butler County commissioners are also trying to solve for a lack of affordable housing. The county received $2.2 million infederal HOME Investment Partnerships Program requests this year. About $1.6 million would potentially create about 104 units of new affordable living space and down payment/closing cost help for 22 people.

Desmond Maaytah, community development manager for the Butler County Department of Development, is expecting the county to receive $700,000 in HOME funds from HUD, and$500,000 in HOME funds are available to roll over from previous years.

The county will receive $550,519 in different HUD grants to help the homeless, and the Butler Metropolitan Housing Authority will receive $2.6 million in HUD funding for capital improvements.

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Kathy Becker of Access Counseling, a passionate advocate for the homeless, said there are many individuals and groups working to solve the homeless situation and sometimes efforts can be fractured.

“If there’s anything that drives me nuts, it’s the turf wars that develop, and with money comes more intensive turf wars,” Becker said. “When there’s no money, then it’s different, people will say, ‘OK, I’ll help out.’ But as soon as that money comes, it’s like, ‘I’m going to be at the forefront and I want the money.’ It changes the face of people working together.”

Muller agreed turf wars exist, but the Butler County Housing and Homeless Coalition tries to help. There are 29 active coalition members, groups that range from governmental entities like the county’s social service agencies and municipalities to homeless shelters and service providers like Sojourner Recovery Services.

These groups have their own funding sources and mandates with strings attached, so it is the coalition’s job to coordinate the various services.

“The coalition isn’t about money, we don’t have money coming into the coalition, so we can be responsive to what the community needs,” Muller said. “While different providers that are at the table have their different mandates, it’s a place that we can all look collectively to say how do we serve Johnny, who has been chronically homeless, when he is involved in all these systems.”

Butler County initiatives aimed at helping the homeless situation:

• Hamilton Municipal Court Judge Dan Gattermeyer has started an “empowerment” docket for the homeless

• Butler County commissioners are considering funding $1.2 million in federal grants for housing

• Butler County Job and Family Services is helping the homeless sign up for services out in the field

• U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recently announced $3.2 million in grants for county agencies

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