St. Vincent de Paul’s shelters are packed because they don’t turn people away

St. Vincent de Paul’s two homeless shelters in Dayton haven’t turned anyone away due to a lack of space since December 2009.

But shelter capacity has been tested at times, including in mid-January 2023, when the facilities had 622 guests.

That was was more people than the facilities ever have served, and officials were starting to get concerned.

The shelters accept anyone, including people who come from outside the community and the state. The shelter also accepts people at all hours.

Not all shelters do those things.

“We’re known for never closing, and the only time we tell people they can’t stay here is for behavioral reasons, and even that is time limited,” said Michael Vanderburgh, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul Society, Dayton. “We don’t know what our limits are, but we’re willing to push our limits. ... The last thing we want to tell people is, ‘There’s no room for you at the inn.’ That’s not who we are.”

St. Vincent de Paul is averaging about 337 guests per night at the shelter for women and families and around 245 people per night at the men’s shelter, according to John Hunter, director of shelter ministries for St. Vincent de Paul Society, Dayton.

That’s about 582 people per night. The number of guests have grown, especially when it comes to singles and children.

The shelter had 545 guests in October, 518 in October 2022, 494 in October 2018, and 327 in October 2015.

The shelter’s guest count peaked at 622 people in January 2023.

There were enough beds and mats for everyone, but the facilities were crowded.

Vanderburgh said a year ago he had conversations with the city of Dayton and Montgomery County about what they would do if the numbers got any higher.

“When it’s happening in real time, we’re like, ‘It’s 600 today, is it going to be 700 in two weeks?’” he said. “We did have conversations about what we would do and the alternatives are not good.”

Vanderburgh said he has no clue why the shelter had a record number of guests a year ago. He said typically September to November have the most shelter stays.

He said it’s entirely possible they could see a record number of guests again in the near future, though right now the number of guests is at a manageable level.

Somewhat surprisingly, guest counts usually go down during the winter.

Evictions are more common in the summer time, he said, and utility assistance programs help keep people in their homes during the colder weather months.

Also, he said, friends and family members seem more willing to help people out with housing during the winter, probably because they are worried about the safety risks of freezing temperatures.

Some people have theorized that the shelters were busier than ever because some COVID-era assistance programs came to an end.

After the pandemic hit, the pantry and laundry areas of the shelter for women and children were converted into another dorm, Vanderburgh said.

Those services were consolidated at a different facility, and areas that were created to allow for social distancing have been turned into permanent, additional space for guests.

With more room, more people may be choosing to stay at the shelter.

“There is a ‘if-you-build-it-they-will-come’ piece to this that is important to recognize,” Vanderburgh said.

No one knows for sure how many people could fit at the two shelters. St. Vincent de Paul officials hope to never see the day where they find that out.

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