‘I need a home where I can heal’: Local homeless shelters seeing record numbers

Affordable housing, end of COVID aid, lack of caseworkers contributing factors

More people than ever are turning to St. Vincent de Paul homeless shelters for housing.

They include families with young children; the period from Jan. 21 to Jan. 27 saw an unprecedented average of between 81 and 88 children as guests each night. They include people with disabilities and domestic violence survivors.

The numbers reached a record of 600 or more guests at the shelters on four nights in January, according to data obtained by the Dayton Daily News. The daily average for a month rose above 500 in October for the first time since late 2019 and has set a new record every month since. The daily average was 575 in January and was 553 as of mid-February.

“People get way more tense when it’s really crowded,” said 58-year-old Nina Priestley, who has been a guest at the 124 W. Apple St. shelter since the lease for her East Dayton apartment was terminated Sept. 30.

Priestley sat at the dinner table in her wheelchair Tuesday evening as a line of women waiting for food wound its way past her.

“There tend to be more fights and stuff, as well as resources start getting tighter, things like number of sheets or towels. Getting to the bathroom gets harder because there are more people lined up for the bathroom,” she said. “Things just get kind of a bit more difficult.”

Local officials say the causes of homelessness are complicated, but factors behind the current surge include a lack of affordable housing, the drying up of COVID relief programs and a shortage of resources to help people quickly access available services.



St. Vincent de Paul

Last month, when numbers began to top 600, the shelter took to social media to issue an urgent request for sheets, blankets, towels and washcloths via its 24-hour donation dock or the organization’s Amazon needs list. St. Vincent de Paul officials said the need reached a record in its 37-year history.

“Definitely, we’re trending for an overall increase in homelessness,” said Michael Vanderburgh, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul Society.

The Dayton area has four places where those without a home can find shelter, but St. Vincent de Paul’s two locations handle approximately 99% of people in need of such accommodations, Vanderburgh said. The two facilities are the only two 24/7 emergency shelters in the Dayton area.

Its West Apple Street shelter is reserved for single women and families with children, while one on South Gettysburg Avenue houses single men. Together, they provide “meals, clothing, personal care items, mail and message services, and access to case managers who help guests find housing to meet their needs,” St. Vincent de Paul Society says on its website.

Affordable housing

Jelana Harris, 43, said a dispute with her landlord displaced her and five of her children.

“We went to a hotel (at first), but it’s too expensive to try and live out of one, so I had to bring the children down here,” Harris said.

Having a place like St. Vincent de Paul, where the family has stayed for the past two months, “means everything to me,” she said.

“If I couldn’t be here, where would I go with them?” Harris said.



Kathleen Shanahan, Montgomery County’s Housing and Homeless Solutions program coordinator, said the solution to homelessness is safe, affordable housing.

“The lack of affordable housing is greater today than it was 15 years ago,” Shanahan said. “We’re still facing the impact of the 2019 tornadoes and the subsequent loss of thousands of affordable housing units, exacerbated by rising housing costs, inflation, higher food costs and comparatively stagnant wages.”

Rising rent makes it more likely that households will lose their housing and the lack of available units lengthens the time that people stay in shelter, she said.

In Ohio in 2021, there were 44 available and affordable units for every 100 very low-income renters, those earning less than 50% of the area median income, Shanahan said.

‘I need a home where I can heal’

Kim “Strawberry” Dennis, 61, who said she grew up in Dayton and raised nine children in Englewood, has been homeless for two years after a domestic violence incident left her in a wheelchair and unable to walk for about a year.

Using a walker to shuffle through the halls of St. Vincent de Paul, Dennis talked about her desire to not only find housing for herself and her younger sister, but also to live near her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, including one she hasn’t met since his birth earlier this month.

“I haven’t held him,” she said, her voice filled with emotion. “I don’t want him here. I would not ask them to come here and see him. I need a home where I can heal, where I can have ... nurses and home health care.

“I want to put my family back together.”



Dennis said what she and most other guests need is rapid re-housing.

“They need to be able to have people waiting to take these people in,” she said.

COVID aid ending

The number of people using the shelters dropped for a while during the pandemic.

“While many people’s income evaporated overnight, the eviction moratorium, and emergency unemployment kept people out of congregate emergency shelters,” Shanahan said. “We also saw fewer people in the community’s emergency shelters during COVID because landlords, friends, and families were more forgiving and more willing to let people stay rather than evicting them and sending them to a congregate shelter during a public health emergency.”

Vanderburgh said the pandemic also saw “massive rent assistance,” stimulus payments and an extension of unemployment benefits.

“There’s no doubt that the trillion dollars-plus that poured into the economy, specifically from government stimulus, has had a short-term impact,” he said.

But that financial help is drying up with COVID aid programs winding down.



Providing resources

Vanderburgh said there are no plans to expand the shelter.

“There’s a certain percentage of people that come to shelter, who actually have other options, and if they had someone to help them figure out those other options, they would stay housed somewhere else,” he said. “That can be very intensive work, and you need workers for that, and we struggle to have enough workers.”

Vanderburgh said it’s important to realize that as far as chronic homelessness is concerned, “it’s about broken relationships and it’s not primarily an economic problem.”

“When we think about how fractured society is today ... (with) family units fracturing and fewer children and fewer multiple adult households, we’re just so fractured that a housing unit today is typically to house one person, and not several people, which is obviously a challenge because society was not ever designed to house people individually,” he said.



People make a difference

Helen Wharton, 75, said she left Memphis, Tennessee due to “family turmoil” and has been in the shelter since July.

Whereas things can be “long and drawn out” at similar institutions in Cincinnati, the staffers at St. Vincent de Paul are “pretty aggressive” when it comes to helping guests find jobs, Wharton said.

“I’m on the internet all the time looking for jobs. There seems to be a lot of jobs here, but I think a lot of times I don’t get called back because of my age,” she said.



Quentin Herman, the shelter’s assistant executive director, said its staff attempt to focus on what they can do to help as numbers rise over the 600 mark and edge close to capacity.

“It is a challenge, but it also makes us realize how important this work is, that we need to use our resources as best as possible,” Herman said.

Homelessness, he said, “can’t be solved just with numbers, just with money, just with facilities.”

“It really requires people willing to be vulnerable and love each other,” Herman said. “I really admire the volunteers who come here, out of their little spheres, their worlds, their communities, to enter this world to donate their time, their energy ... their compassion. We need more of that.”

‘You feel less alone here’

Priestley said that she has noticed things getting better at the shelter in the past several weeks as people have found housing.

She said a disability prevented her from working for several years, but that she recently started receiving Supplemental Security Income. Her case manager at Eastway Behavioral Healthcare recommended that she come to the shelter because of its housing program, Priestley said.



“Things do seem to be happening,” Priestley said. “From what we were told, I’m high up on the waiting list for (permanent housing) and they do have openings.”

Priestley, who also stayed at the shelter for four months in 2010 after losing her house, emphasized that “homelessness can happen to anybody.”

She said the help provided by St. Vincent de Paul staffers and volunteers “means a lot” to her.

“A lot of us here are here because, in one sense, we’re alone,” Priestley said. “Either we have no family or our families have broken up or we don’t get along with our family or whatever, but you feel less alone here.”

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