Fighting homelessness and housing insecurity during a pandemic

Joel Oliphint
A homeless man carries his possessions along North High Street last year.

In the early days of the COVID-19 crisis, Bill Faith, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio (COHHIO), heard about the coronavirus outbreaks in Ohio prisons and nursing homes. He couldn’t help but wonder: Will homeless shelters be next?

“A shelter is the exact opposite of what you're supposed to be doing during COVID. Everybody's crowded, in tight quarters. You all sleep in a dormitory. You eat in a common area. You hang out in a common area with a whole bunch of people. Washing your hands frequently is really not common practice. … That was just a big outbreak waiting to happen,” Faith said. “So we worked feverishly for the first couple months just to try to help them financially. I mean, they had no protective gear, no PPE, no masks, nothing. Not for the shelter workers, and also not for the residents.”

COHHIO put out a call on Facebook for people to make and donate masks, which resulted in about 3,000 homemade masks. The nonprofit also made a fundraising push, raising just under $2 million to quickly get money to homeless groups throughout the state. (“That’s something we don't normally do. They usually raise their own money,” Faith said.) COHHIO eventually purchased 90,000 masks and loads of sanitizer. Some shelters rented out hundreds of hotel rooms for residents as a way to temporarily lower the density and create social distance. Using guidance from the CDC, COHHIO hosted web-based trainings for shelter workers.

“It gave the work an extreme sense of urgency because every little thing we were doing, like getting sanitizer donated and distributing that around the state, I mean, that was huge. They had none, and they couldn't buy from their regular suppliers. It just wasn't available,” Faith said. “[COHHIO Managing Director] Douglas [Argue] and I, we took turns filling up our garages with supplies that we got donated or that we purchased in bulk. We had volunteers take loads of stuff to Cincinnati and Cleveland, and when we gave out the first load of masks, people in the shelters we were working with were in tears. They knew what was going on. They listened to Amy Acton. They were fully aware of the risk, and they were so grateful to get even just a basic mask to wear. ... It felt like you were racing to avoid real severe problems.”

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While Ohio certainly isn’t out of the woods yet when it comes to COVID, so far, the state’s 300 or so homeless shelters, which house about 10,000 people per night, have been spared from devastating outbreaks. “For the most part, the programs stayed open and did a good job social distancing,” Faith said. “Shelter workers don’t make a lot of money. But all these people kept working, and they didn't get a lot of recognition. They're really frontline workers in this kind of crisis.”

Faith has led COHHIO since 1994, when the Ohio Housing Coalition and the Ohio Coalition for the Homeless merged. He’s one month away from 65, and recently had begun “thinking about retiring someday, maybe,” he said. “This thing put those thoughts on hold.”

With shelters getting accustomed to the new (ab)normal, COHHIO is focusing on the economic fallout of the pandemic and lobbying state and federal politicians to provide assistance for low-income Ohioans who were already struggling before the shutdowns.

“We had 400,000 households around the state that were paying more than half of their income for rent before COVID,” Faith said. “Columbus is one of the worst cities in the state for that because housing prices are so much higher.”

In some ways, lobbying is tougher during a pandemic. Faith isn’t getting on airplanes to go back and forth from Columbus to Washington, D.C. And he’s hesitant to spend much time at the Statehouse. “Some of those people aren’t respecting basic social distancing rules,” he said. But there are some unanticipated advantages, too. For one, many politicians are more accessible via video calls.

“They're setting aside time to meet with us. They're available, and we can put as many people on the call with them as we want to,” Faith said. “We were trying to work on legislation with Sen. Sherrod Brown, and we wanted to view it as an opportunity to educate people around the state about why this legislation is important. So we got permission from their office to open it up to anybody that wanted to join the call, and we had 610 people sign up. ... There's no way we could get 500 people to D.C. to meet with him. We did a similar call with Rob Portman.”

Since the CARES Act passed, money has begun to flow from Washington, but convincing Gov. Mike DeWine to address what Faith sees as a looming crisis for low-income households has proved to be challenging.

"We had a moratorium on eviction [hearings], and that moratorium is over. So they reopened the eviction court at the Convention Center, which is more about social distancing, really, than volume. … The volume of people going through eviction court, at least in Franklin County, hasn't been nearly what I'm afraid is coming,” said Faith, who worries that when the extra $600 per week of federal unemployment money stops flowing at the end of July, many Ohioans won’t be able to pay their rent. In fact, in a press release that went out today, COHHIO cited U.S. Census Bureau data that estimate half a million Ohioans were unable to pay their rent in June — and that’s with the extra $600 still in place.

And while local efforts can help a bit, Faith said a million dollars from Columbus City Council is a drop in the bucket. Tens of millions are needed. In mid-June, COHHIO sent a letter to Gov. DeWine asking his administration to “deploy at least $100 million from Ohio’s federal Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) for emergency rental assistance for unemployed tenants who are unable to pay their rent.” More than 200 groups from across Ohio signed on to the letter.

“They're sitting on this money that could be used for that purpose. Other states did it. Illinois did well over $300 million in housing assistance. Pennsylvania did over $100 million. Even Montana did $50 million,” Faith said. “We've had a lot of conversations, but not a lot of money yet. Overall, you have to appreciate the governor's leadership through this thing. [But] on these issues, they haven't really embraced the challenge yet.”

In the course of last year, about 70,000 people experienced homelessness in Ohio, including 20,000 children (3,000 of whom were infants). The homeless system in Ohio can’t absorb the waves of people that could be coming in the next few months, Faith said, and it’s those people — the ones who are hanging by a thread — that motivate Faith and COHHIO to continue their advocacy.

“I just think about those moms with a couple of kids that are trying to eke out a survival in overcrowded shelters. And trying to deal with their kids not being in school. Doing home school when you're in a shelter is next to impossible. … I know the sensitivities that the governor expressed about children's issues when he was doing his budget. What about this? I mean, there's 17,000 homeless kids, 3,000 babies. Can't we do something about that? Can't we help those people get back into housing so they have some stability in their life? It boggles my mind that they don't take action more quickly,” Faith said. “We try to press our case with them. We talk to a lot of people in the governor's office. We have nice conversations. There's certainly good people around the administration. But they've not gotten it together to address this, and it really needs to change quickly.”

Bill Faith, executive director of COHHIO