She has been clean — off heroin for 2½ years — but still Holly Behrens finds herself homeless, one of the 26 residents living in the Hope House Women’s Center in Middletown.
She is 37, the mother of three children, and searching for answers.
“Never thought I’d be homeless,” Behrens said while sitting in the homeless shelter. “That comes along with my past, I guess. I was trying to get on my feet, recover from drugs, get my mental state and everything back in order.”
The face of homelessness is changing. Now, more than ever, the portrait of a 60-year-old man pushing a grocery cart down an alley has been changed to a mother living in a shelter with her children.
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There are an estimated 565,000 homeless people living in the United States on any given night, according to the National Alliance To End Homelessness. Of that, about 40 percent, or 226,000, are women. Females and families are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population, with 85 percent of homeless families headed by single women, the alliance said.
Shelters throughout Butler County are reporting high numbers of females residents, days before the start of winter.
Of the 19 clients recently at Serving Homeless Alternate Lodging Of Middletown (SHALOM), a church-based shelter that operates in the winter, nine were females, said Bill Fugate, one of the coordinators. He couldn’t remember a time since SHALOM opened 15 years ago that it housed so many women and their children.
“No answer,” he said when asked why the increase.
Cara Klinefelter, director of the Hope House Women’s Center, believes the spike can be attributed to the growing number of women who have made “bad choices,” faced addictive behaviors and domestic violence situations. She said most of the women in the shelter once lived with a working man, and once the relationship ended, they find themselves on the street.
At the women’s center, the goal is to find permanent housing and prepare the residents for life after homelessness, Klinefelter said.
Bobby Grove III, program director at Haven House in Hamilton, said because of the heroin epidemic he believes more women are “burning every bridge imaginable,” and then they find themselves homeless.
“Bad choices,” Grove said.
At Haven House, Grove said women are offered a place to stay “without the temptations” of drugs. They are allowed to stay for up to 90 days, and hopefully before then, they find more permanent housing, he said.
Haven House has bed space for 80 residents, but because most of its residents are families, “full” is a relative term, Grove said. He said a room where there are six bed spaces may have a woman and her two children. He said there were 47 people staying at Haven House, including 11 single mothers, one single dad and 35 children.
Linda Kimble, executive director of Chosen/Serve City in Hamilton, said the increase in female residents is due to the “steady decline of the family.” She also pointed to the combination of heroin use and high divorce rate.
The shelter holds 40 men and 12 women, and recently was near capacity, she said.
She said more shelters are needed locally that accepted parents and children.
Residents at Chosen/Serve City are permitted to stay for 90 days and the goal is to find them more stable housing. She said 85 percent of the residents have been placed in Butler County. The agency has four apartment buildings that hold up to 73 people, she said. Monthly rent is $225 and that includes utilities, she said.
One day, Behrens hopes to find permanent housing and be reunited with her three children: an 18 year old daughter who lives with her biological father, and a 15-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son who are in foster care. She hasn’t seen her two youngest kids in 10 years.
But right now, she needs to take care of herself, she said.
Behrens dropped out of Withrow High School in Cincinnati her freshman year, then was drawn to alcohol. She was introduced to heroin after she lost custody of her children, she said.
“It escalated from there,” said Behrens, who has been in and out of rehab seven times.
She hasn’t been successful, she said, because she “allowed negative people in my life.”
At Hope House, which is faith-based, Behrens believes she has turned the corner. In her six weeks there, she has received therapy and met with case workers.
“You have to surround yourself with positive people in your life,” she said. “This is such a great place for me to be.”