Pandemic hurting homeless situation in Butler County: What to know

The pandemic has taken its toll on the homeless population in Butler County but help could be on the way. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF
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The pandemic has taken its toll on the homeless population in Butler County but help could be on the way. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF

Butler County entities that help the homeless say the pandemic has compounded issues faced by that community, and those problems could get worse now that the eviction moratorium has been lifted as they hope helps is on the way.

There is no data for how many people in Butler County are homeless because the annual point in time head count wasn’t done this year due to the pandemic. The full count of sheltered and unsheltered for 2020 was sidelined last year too. They found 70 people living on the streets in January but the full count was never tabulated. The PIT count in 2019 was 298.

Mindy Muller chairwoman of the Butler County Housing and Homeless Coalition said the traditional head-count of sheltered and unsheltered people — that is done as a HUD funding requirement every year — doesn’t begin to paint the picture they know to be true today. There are more “doubled up families” and people living in extended stay hotels now.

“They are accessing ancillary services that are keeping their family stabilized. There is a whole system, Butler County Success has liaisons in all of the schools, those liaisons are serving at risk families, families that are not stably housed,” Muller said.

“They are one of the ways that we kind of keep a pulse on what the needs are, of families that are not hitting in a PIT count because we’re not going to hotels, that’s not considered homeless by HUD’s definition, but they are not in stable housing, extended stay is not a plan for people.”

Muller said food pantries are another information source for gauging the need. The Shared Harvest Foodbank recently shared with the Butler County commissioners that since March 2020 their network of 40 food pantries, soup kitchens, and shelters in the county has served more than 123,530 families, which is almost double those helped the previous year.

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Kathy Becker, director of law enforcement and criminal justice for Access Counseling, who has spent her life helping the homeless, said the pandemic has taken its toll.

“We’re seeing increasing numbers but the severity of needs have greatly increased and I think part of that is COVID, I think COVID has manifested mental health symptoms,” Becker said. “I think it’s manifested substance usage, this has been scary and overwhelming for people.”

Compounding things is homeless people who need mental health and substance abuse help couldn’t get it because providers were using video visits and many homeless people don’t have access to technology. She also fears things will start getting worse since the U.S. Supreme Court ended the eviction moratorium on Aug. 26.

“We’re going to shove a whole other group of people potentially onto the street, some of which have never ever experienced homelessness and haven’t developed skills for survival, as fall and winter are coming” Becker said. “And that worries me greatly.”

Butler County qualified for $11.4 million in federal funding to help people who were struggling to pay rent and utilities due to the pandemic-induced economic shutdown. The commissioners contracted with Supports to Encourage Low-income Families (SELF) in March to manage the program. They have spent $3.4 million helping 790 households.

The commissioners were also awarded almost $75 million in American Rescue Plan funds and have been hearing pitches from a host of entities for spending the money, several target helping the homeless. Last week Hamilton’s Serve City shelter Executive Director David Hood pitched a $7.5 million project and asked the commissioners for $5.1 million. The plan calls for relocating the shelter, a “Moving Forward: Housing Stability Program” and building 30 new low-income housing units.

Also seeking funding are the city of Oxford, the Talawanda Oxford Pantry & Social Services and Family Resource Center are asking for $1.5 million to help them build a one-stop social services facility that includes services for the homeless.

Access Counseling is asking for as much as $900,000 — depending on partnership opportunities and available space — for engagement centers in Hamilton and Middletown to give the homeless access to much-needed services.

Muller said the biggest problem in Butler County is a serious lack of affordable housing the homeless can move into after they are back on their feet. The coalition has a goal of creating 300 units in three years. She said they plan to convene all the “politicos” countywide and people of influence to address the entire system.

“It’s complex and it’s not something that’s going to be easily solved in general,” Muller said. “We’re trying to make sure we have a better system that doesn’t leave people homeless, that doesn’t just provide them a bed today but looks at how we help them attain housing stability over the long term.”