The old saying that there's no place like home for the holidays is literally true for some of the nearly 2,500 that become homeless each year in Greater Cincinnati.
Instead of shopping at a mall, Karen Johnston and her children, Tiffany, 11, and Adam, 9, board a big blue bus each evening bound for their temporary shelter. The family became homeless three weeks ago after a series of unfortunate events.
"I tried so hard to make sure this would never happen to me, and I'm still trying to make sure that we're OK," Johnston says. "It's just a real eye opener because nobody really knows how close they can be to a situation like this. So, no, never in my wildest dreams did I ever think we'd be here."
Following a divorce, Johnston and her children moved to Florida to be closer to family. But custody laws required them to return to Cincinnati. By then Johnston had lost her license as a dental assistan as well as the support of her family and her child support, which went missing somewhere within the system. After exhausting her funds and unable to find employment, she turned to United Way, which directed her to the Interfaith Hospitality Network (IHN) of Cincinnati, a nonprofit organization that provides temporary housing for families.
"Since we've been here, it has been an experience," Johnston says. "You know it's never great to be homeless, but we've seen a lot of real stories. A lot of people think that homeless people are people that never try — and that's all I've done my whole life — or people that are uneducated, and that's so not true. I have a bachelor's degree. Anybody can be homeless."
'People don't know'
Headquartered in Price Hill, IHN utilizes churches for temporary shelter until families can find and retain permanent housing. IHN provides evening quarters, meals, education and referrals to other agencies. The network consists of 20 host congregations and 34 support congregations from a variety of faiths. Two host churches house four families each for a period of two weeks.
The congregations go out of their way to make families feel at home, providing private rooms as bedrooms, arranging games and activities for children and serving a group dinner in the evening, according to Bob Moore, executive director of IHN.
"The families get good human company there and that really, really makes a difference," he says. "We've had parents say that the people at so-and-so congregation were just wonderful. They feel that they made friends there, and they have."
IHN houses families as long as necessary, Moore says. However, the organization is usually able to find families housing within three to four weeks.
"Very rarely does a family stay here as long as two months," he says. "Occasionally it happens, but it's been years since we've had someone stay more than three months because we know good resources and Eve's good at getting families hooked up."
This year the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless named Eve Beasley, IHN's case manager, its Service Provider of the Year. She contacts federal agencies and subsidized landlords to find permanent housing for families and helps educate them on how to avoid problems in the future. IHN has classes on budgeting, parenting and other life skills. In her three years at IHN, Beasley says, she's learned a lot from the families she serves.
"I get so emotional and idealistic about my job, it's not really a job," she says. "Most people don't know what homelessness is. We're talking real families with real kids — real people. It's not always someone who has never been able to make it. Sometimes a parent will get fired and have no other resources and no place to go."
'It becomes impossible'
IHN is one of only two shelters in the area that takes in two-parent families and families with teenage boys. John Conyers found himself and his two sons on the street after their apartment building in Over-the-Rhine was sold.
"Me and my boys have been in Over-the-Rhine for the last seven years and I watched them morally deteriorate because of how Over-the-Rhine is," he says. "It becomes kind of impossible to move. You can't afford a truck. You can't afford first month rent or deposit. You're stuck."
Watching a 14-year-old boy gun down two people outside their home made Conyers decide to seek help relocating outside the neighborhood. Since the boys have been at the shelter, Conyers says, he's seen a change in their behavior.
"My boys fight, cuss, do all the negative things that you can think of, but here their behavior has improved 95 percent," he says. "My kids are rubbing shoulders with people normally they would never get to meet, and they're sitting down eating with them. The mere presence of a lot of these people has a lot to do with my kids' behavior."
Conyers became a unique success story for IHN by qualifying for home ownership directly from temporary shelter. He says only a few more elements need to fall into place before the family can move into their own home in Madisonville.
"This is a self help program, from what I see," he says. "If you make the initiative to get the ball rolling, they will help you. But they're not going to carry it — and everyone wants them to carry the ball while they run alongside of them, and they're not going to do that. You're going have to carry your own ball. They will help you move obstacles out of your way and make it a little bit easier for you, but you're going to have to do it yourself."
For more information about the Interfaith Hospitality Network, call 513-471-1100 or visit www.ihncincinnati.org.