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Keep the Streets Empty

By Amanda Lynn Barker

During this historical moment, we are all subject to the uncertainty of a crisis situation. Drones fly through cities, broadcasting empty streets across social media channels. We live day by day, or perhaps week by week, waiting for news of reassurance that our lives will return to what we recognize as normal. Some of us might feel hopeless, fearing for the instability that follows two, three, and four weeks without a paycheck. Some of us might feel a certain peace, surrendering to the unknown that none of us can control. For others, who lived on the margins before this pandemic, who survived day to day while the rest of us rushed along fulfilling our business as usual, this crisis illuminates the deep chasm of Cincinnati’s housing crisis. Now more than ever, we need to stand in solidarity as a city, and push forward to secure safe, stable, and accessible housing for all.

Imagine this. You live in your car. You have been lucky to find a safe and hidden spot to park it, out of the purview of the authorities who sometimes tap the window and shine the flashlight in the middle of the night. You have a lead on a place that is becoming available in three months. This is a temporary situation, and you know you can get through it. You have a monthly gym membership, where you shower every morning and prepare for work. You have a coffee shop that you visit after work before returning to your car. You have a community through your workplace, your gym, and your coffee shop. Suddenly, an unprecedented pandemic of a highly infectious virus sweeps through your city. Your gym closes. Where will you shower? Your coffee shop also shuts its doors. How will you access your social network? Your job says you can work from home. Unfortunately, you live in your car and don’t have a home office, and the community spaces offering access to WIFI are closed. Your job lays you off. Now what?

Imagine this. You live on the couch with a friend who has been helping while you save money to secure an affordable apartment. It’s taking more time than you thought because the steering belt in your car broke and it took the last of your meager savings to have it towed to the mechanic. You ride public transit to and from work, but the inefficiencies of the bus line takes up time that you could be using to view apartments. Additionally, the apartments in your price range are very far from the city center, and require multiple bus transfers. The $11 an hour you earn is not stretching very far. Your friend is understanding, but you can tell you are starting to encroach on their space. Suddenly, the state issues a stay-at-home order to protect the community from an unknown infectious disease. You work at a supermarket, and are considered Essential. Fortunately, you get to keep your $11 an hour job. Unfortunately, landlords have stopped showing new units. At the same time, your friend gets concerned about their health, because you are exposed to the virus on the bus and at work. They need you to find another place, like, now. You tell them not to worry about you, and toss a few items into a backpack and head out. Now what?

Homelessness does not always look like what is portrayed in the media. At the Homeless Coalition, we recognize six types of homelessness. Couchsurfing is when people stay with friends or a relative. Doubling up is when multiple families live together and share space out of financial necessity. Couchsurfing and doubling up may or may not be allowed on the lease, and typically creates overcrowded living situations. Living in a car is another form of homelessness, as is living in a tent or on the street. Shelter life is available to some people, but the shelters are typically overcapacity. Without access to a transition into safe and stable housing, many people from shelters stay until their time limit expires, and then return to the typically dangerous situation they left. Finally, many children and youth experience what is called “homeless at home.” They have shelter, but no food, no space to call their own, and no guidance.

In this current pandemic, social service providers have been organizing and collaborating tirelessly to secure funding and hotel space for families and individuals in the overcrowded shelters. So far, the foundations have generously supported this struggle. The City has been less willing to provide the necessary funding. Progress has been made, but the need is still high. Additionally, new camps have appeared and are increasing in size. The pandemic is forcing individuals who have been couchsurfing and doubling up to leave their housing. Without a statewide moratorium on evictions and foreclosures, it is impossible to predict how many others in currently stable housing today will lose it in the near future. At the Homeless Coalition, we are still here. We are still advocating. Our work has not been put on pause.

Although our campaign efforts are temporarily moved into the digital space, we are still mobilizing efforts for our Affordable Housing Trust Fund ballot initiative. This ballot initiative will create city legislation to resource the already established citywide housing trust fund with $50 million per year. This will fund infrastructure development projects to build and maintain affordable housing for 5000 families, seniors, and working individuals who earn less than $24,000 each year. You might not see us in person for a while, but we are still organizing! And we still need your support. This pandemic has further illuminated the need. Let’s start now to rebuild the new post-rona world so that the next time an unfamiliar disease pummels our streets and sidewalks, no one will be living on them.

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