Friday, February 6, 2004

Groups begin homeless census


Agencies seek better picture of life on the streets

By Liz Oakes
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Glenn Dominy, a homeless man in downtown Cincinnati, was among 24 people found on Cincinnati streets Tuesday night in the first count of a new push to document the city's homeless year-round.
(Gary Landers photo)
DOWNTOWN - Over a heating vent on Fourth Street where his possessions were lodged for the evening, Glenn Dominy opened a package of long johns, a gift from an outreach worker on a 28-degree night.

He's lived on the streets off-and-on about 13 years.

"I got nowhere to go," the New Orleans native said. "You try to find someplace. You don't mess with the cold."

Dominy, 43, spoke as homeless advocates Brent Chasteen and Georgine Getty chatted with another homeless man bundled in a sleeping bag on the neighboring grate.

Dominy was one of 24 people found on Cincinnati streets Tuesday night in the first count of a new push to document the city's homeless year-round. The counts will be done quarterly by the Homeless Outreach Group, a coalition that includes social-service agencies and activists that formed last summer after homeless clashes with the city over anti-panhandling laws and removal of their camps.

The group wants to get a more accurate picture of the number of homeless in Greater Cincinnati so that it can coordinate services to ensure that homeless people obtain sufficient help.

The activists pointed to a national homeless advocacy group that gave the city poor marks for its homeless policies.

Last summer, the National Coalition for the Homeless branded Cincinnati the "sixth-meanest city" for the homeless because of its public policies, including the panhandling ordinance and ouster of homeless people from public places.

The outreach group says it's making progress in finding help for homeless people. But formidable obstacles remain, they say, and there are gaps in the system that deals with homelessness.

Ranking source of contention

City Councilman Pat DeWine says the city has done plenty for the homeless.

"The city is too tolerant of disorder," DeWine said. "We need to better enforce the panhandling laws downtown."

'MEANEST' CITIES
These are the top 10 "meanest" cities in America for homeless people, according to a ranking by the National Coalition for the Homeless. The rankings are based on public policies toward the homeless, from anti-panhandling laws and dismantling of camps to bans on napping in parks and other activities.

1. Las Vegas
2. San Francisco
3. New York City
4. Los Angeles
5. Atlanta
6. Cincinnati
7. Key West, Fla.
8. Austin, Texas
9. Orlando, Fla.
10. New Orleans
Source: National Coalition for the Homeless
Cincinnati is one of the most generous cities in the country, he maintains, in setting aside about 1.5 percent of its general fund - at least $4 million - for social programs.

The ousting of Dominy and four other people who were living under the Clay Wade Bailey Bridge last summer led to a lawsuit against the city. In August, when a homeless camp was bulldozed, Dominy said he lost kidney medicine and pictures of his mother.

In Cincinnati, "there's been a huge increase in people who have no place to go," said Getty, executive director of the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless.

According to the organization, more than 25,000 people in Greater Cincinnati - which has a population of about 2 million - have no place to live at some point each year. The number includes those in shelters, and friends or relatives who sleep on someone's couch.

The number has grown by about 5,000 people since a coalition study 10 years ago.

Spreading to suburbs

Homelessness is not a problem confined to Cincinnati. Advocates say homelessness is growing in the suburbs.

In Warren County, "we have noticed a significant increase" in people needing a place to stay, said Linda Rabolt of Interfaith Hospitality Network, a group of 38 churches.

"We had 168 referrals in 2002 and 240 referrals in 2003," she said.

Butler County has four often-full homeless shelters; two years ago, it had two, said Kathy Becker, who coordinates homeless outreach and services for Transitional Living Inc., a social service agency in Hamilton.

In 2001, a homeless coalition counted 1,100 people without a place to live in Butler County. The coalition is tallying a new count.

"If they're still finding people in the streets and the shelters are full, there's got be an increase," Becker said.

Those still braving the elements in February are hard-core homeless, said Gregg Pieples of CRI, local mental health agency, and one of the counters.

"These are the folks that we really want to get to, because these are the folks that are the hardest to pull in," Pieples said. "If they're willing to weather the storm, they're going to be less willing to get into services."

Still, "I'm encouraged that there weren't more people we came across (Tuesday) night," Pieples said.

Last year, after getting several complaints a week about homeless panhandling, Downtown Cincinnati Inc. decided to spend $20,000 in an outreach experiment, said David Ginsburg, president and CEO of the business group.

In June the organization hired Chasteen to work with people on the street in the central business district, who may be struggling with substance abuse as well as homelessness.

"Frankly, I was really skeptical it was going to work," Ginsburg said.

So far, Chasteen says, the help has gotten about 40 people off the street into treatment, transitional or permanent housing, and Downtown Cincinnati last fall made the outreach a part of its 2004 budget.

Successes and setbacks

Another bright spot that grew out of the clashes last summer, homeless activists say, has been creation of the Homeless Outreach Group, which Pieples coordinates.

Composed of about 15 agencies, from mental health organizations to veterans and substance abuse services, it meets monthly to try to ensure homeless don't fall through the cracks in assistance.

Cincinnati police also attend meetings to work with activists.

"Anyone that's on the streets, we try to coordinate," Pieples said.

After the bridge sweeps, outreach groups formed the umbrella group "to make sure that nothing snuck up on us," he said. "If there was a homeless camp out there, we wanted to know about it before anyone else."

But despite some success stories, the fact that dozens of people can be found on the streets during the coldest part of the year illustrates the persistence and depth of the problem, advocates say.

"You don't end up under a bridge because you think it would be a cool place to live," Pieples said.

The need for affordable housing is pressing, Getty says.

She points to the loss of apartments at the former Huntington Meadows complex in Bond Hill. Its closure about two years ago put about 150 people in shelters, she said.

The mental health system is backed up as well, those who work with the homeless say.

"We're feeling the crunch," Pieples said. "Our referrals are going up."

There's also a need for more outreach, especially in substance abuse, the advocates say.

"I'm only one guy; I can only do so much," Chasteen said.

Anna Michael contributed. E-mail loakes@enquirer.com




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