Reckoning with the impact of COVID-19 on homelessness

"For me, the most heartbreaking part of my last day in the Library [when we closed our buildings due to the COVID-19 outbreak] was walking around talking to our community members who are experiencing homelessness about what was happening, that I wouldn't see them the next day, that our doors wouldn't be open to them or anyone," said Correna Kuhl, Senior Library Services Assistant, as she reflected on the past several months since the pandemic took hold in the Cincinnati area.  
"One older woman shifted her cane from hand to hand nervously, asking me where I thought she should go instead. I told her that I had heard the park would keep their public bathrooms open, that maybe the weather would be nice and the park would allow restroom access and the ability to social distance. I thought of her all weekend, as Saturday brought downpours and Sunday was cold and gray."

While losing in-person Library services was a blow to all of our Library-loving community and staff, perhaps the most devastating loss was for people who are unhoused and find shelter, restrooms, and community in our libraries, along with access to technology, reading, and entertainment. “Far beyond shelter, the Library has also created a space where some of our most vulnerable neighbors can connect with people and organizations that can get them the help they may need,” said Kuhl.  

The crisis within a crisis  

Local and national organizations are heeding strong warnings that an increase in homelessness could result due to the pandemic, as recently reported by local media, opens a new window. Economically challenged community members and families may be struggling even more in the months ahead due to COVID-19-related challenges: unexpected unemployment, barriers to child care, transportation challenges, health-related challenges, the digital divide, and more.  
Eviction Lab, opens a new window indicates that homelessness is an ongoing and systemic problem, as evidenced by 2016 data and beyond. It demonstrates that eviction rates in Ohio have lingered around 158 evictions per day. In the past few years, local eviction filing rates, opens a new window in the Cincinnati region are 8.7 percent—a percentage of renter-occupied units that experience an eviction filing—and now that number sits well above the nation’s average (6.3 percent). 

At the onset of the pandemic, Cincinnati suspended eviction court proceedings, but they recently resumed on June 8. Clerk of Courts Aftab Pureval set up an Eviction Help Center, opens a new window to connect tenants facing eviction with assistance. According to CityBeat, there were already roughly 1,000 pending eviction cases when the courts reopened. More evictions are expected to come as the social and economic impact of COVID-19 ravages already poverty-stricken communities and disproportionately impacts communities of color.   

What can be done?  

Our Library has positioned itself to be part of an ecosystem of community partners and grassroots efforts to help heal the cycles of poverty when it comes to eviction prevention and connecting people to educational and financial resources. Last year, opens a new window, we partnered with Legal Aid Society, Community Action Agency, St. Vincent de Paul, and YMCA of Greater Cincinnati to provide eviction prevention educational and eligibility workshops at Library and YMCA locations across the county. More than 100 people received eviction prevention money to pay past due rent, learned about renters’ rights and responsibilities, and cultivated a path of sustainable quality of life toward the future. 

In addition, we've partnered with the City of Cincinnati in developing and providing Tenant Rights and Landlord Education, opens a new window workshops at Library locations starting in January 2020. After several successful, well-attended workshops at several locations earlier this year, Stay-At-Home orders brought about new virtual tenant rights workshops provided by the city in two parts: 

Part 1: , opens a new window

Part 2: , opens a new window
“As a result of Library partnerships with other community organizations, one of my regular patrons entered a new chapter of his life after 16 years of homelessness and 22 years battling addiction,” said Kuhl. “A month before COVID-19 closed our doors, I was able to connect him with the resources he needed to move forward, and he is flourishing in spite of the global pandemic.”  

Addressing affordable housing

Not only does our city find itself in the middle of an eviction crisis; it is also in an affordable housing crisis. The city currently faces a shortfall of more than 23,000 affordable units. 

In 2017, the city of Cincinnati established the Affordable Housing Trust Fund. As in many other U.S. cities, this trust is specifically dedicated to maintaining and creating housing affordable to families with low incomes.

What the trust fund does:

  • Build and maintain housing for workers, seniors, and families who are currently competing for overpriced, market-rate apartments,
  • Focus on housing for people who earn less than $30,000 per year, with special attention on affordability for our community members who earn less than $15,000. 
  • Ninety-five percent of the funds will be invested in the community mostly for projects like capital development, with a small amount available for direct services. Capital developments include restoring some of the currently existing but outdated housing, and building new infrastructure.

The issue? The city hasn't provided a significant or ongoing source of funding for the trust. 

Cincinnati Action for Housing Now is working to remedy this problem with a ballot initiative that would secure $50 million in annual funding for the trust. The campaign is currently collecting signatures to get the issue on the May 2021 ballot.  

The ballot language would require that the projects that receive money through this trust fund stay affordable forever and all workers on projects funded by the trust are required to be paid a living wage. This would all be overseen by a community oversight board.  

You can learn more about the initiative on the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition website, opens a new window or the Cincinnati Action for Housing Now, opens a new window website and Facebook page, opens a new window.  

Where do we go from here?

Once a family is evicted, many cannot get into new housing they can afford and are forced into housing insecurity by living with friends or relatives, often in cramped and unstable conditions, forced into shelters that are already at capacity, or forced onto the streets.  

"Now is a great time, if we are able, to donate to or volunteer with organizations that advocate for and support people experiencing homelessness. People who were living in unstable, unhealthy, and unsafe conditions before are now living in those same conditions (or worse) during an unprecedented health crisis,” said Kuhl. “It is also the time to amplify the voices of people experiencing homelessness, to make sure they feel seen and heard and cared about. As more people lose their livelihoods, we must reach out to support organizations that assist people on the precipice of homelessness."