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Oxford’s cold shelter helps homeless people out of the cold

<p>Oxford&#x27;s cold shelter, which consists of six rooms in the Budget Inn, was operating far above capacity in February.</p>

Oxford's cold shelter, which consists of six rooms in the Budget Inn, was operating far above capacity in February.

Oxford’s cold shelter operated at 133% capacity for the month of February.

The shelter, which consists of six rooms at the Budget Inn, is maintained by the Family Resource Center (FRC), an organization that assists local families with basic needs. In a particularly freezing month with frequent snow, the need for immediate shelter exceeded what the cold shelter could provide.

Brad Hoblitzell has lived in Oxford for 12 years and became the director of the FRC in 2019. He said homelessness in Oxford can go under the radar because so much focus is placed on the uptown area rather than the outskirts of town where lower income housing tends to be.

“A lot of the focus in Oxford is with Miami University, obviously,” Hoblitzell said. “That’s not a bad thing … [but] there’s a certain picture in your head when you envision Oxford. When you visit the campus and that area, you don’t think, ‘Oh, there’s a homelessness issue.’”

The cold shelter was supposed to operate for four months, November through February. 

The first two months were paid for with Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding before City Council approved a $74,000 resolution to extend the program into 2021 and cover next November and December.

After several major snow storms in February, Oxford Citizens for Peace and Justice (OCPJ) decided to help extend the program through March.

“We knew that [the cold shelter funding] was running out at the end of February, and we decided that we wanted to do something about that because it was cold,” said Barb Caruso, president of OCPJ’s board executive committee. “March is still cold … We wanted to continue it a bit more until it got more conspicuously warm at least.”

Sherry Lind is the chair of Oxford’s Housing Advisory Commission (HAC) and a family services coordinator for Family Promise of Butler County (FPBC), an organization that helps families with children under 18 find housing. She said homelessness is prevalent across Butler County, and shelters everywhere are full.

“As of [March 6], all the shelters are full and have been full,” Lind said. “Because of COVID, we’re cut back severely on the number of people we can help. Our shelter program, which normally helps around 10 families at a time, has only been able to do two at a time because of COVID. There are so many people out there who need shelter, but there’s just nowhere for them to go.”

Lind said it’s been a struggle finding housing for recently evicted families over the past few months. Even if a family comes from Oxford, she said the rent in the city can be too expensive compared to Hamilton or Middletown.

One family Lind recently worked with was evicted as an indirect result of COVID-19. The family’s mother was pregnant when the lockdowns began and hasn’t been able to find work since then because she had to care for a new baby.

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“It’s difficult for her because she had a job; she had a good income,” Lind said. “Her kids grew up expecting to be able to buy the things they want.”

Like many families Lind works with, the mother received an eviction notice from her landlord after failing to pay rent.

The current moratorium on evictions due to loss of income from the pandemic has made it easier for some to stay in their apartments. Renters are still obligated to pay partial rent, though, and landlords still have the power to evict for various reasons. 

For the family Lind worked with, one missed payment too many meant they could be evicted regardless of the pandemic, and as temperatures rise, Lind said FPBC has had more clients coming in with eviction notices.

“Our phone hasn’t stopped ringing since the warm weather started,” Lind said. “The [landlords] are no longer hesitating. Many of these people who have been in poverty or just above poverty, living paycheck to paycheck, don’t even know where to start.”

Despite the best efforts of various non-profit organizations, Oxford still has an estimated 67 homeless residents according to a recent housing assessment by Bowen National Research (BNR). 

For Caruso, that number wasn’t surprising.

“The response we’re getting [about the cold shelter], the notes and phone calls from people we know, indicates that people are not surprised that we have homelessness going on,” Caruso said. “But it’s not something we think about every day.”

The cold shelter doesn’t just operate as a one-night refuge. Hoblitzell said the FRC focuses on making sure people have a safe place to go after they leave. Stays can last three days or three weeks.

“We want to see [the people we take on] move from point A to point B,” Hoblitzell said. “That can mean a lot of different things … If we see a situation where we can throw money at this, but it’s not sustainable, we try to find other options of service for them that would be a better answer than what we have.”

Even though Oxford is expanding services for low-income families and homeless people, Assistant City Manager Jessica Greene said not everyone wants help.

“We’ve experienced in Oxford that sometimes when people are homeless, they don’t want to go to a shelter,” Greene said. “They don’t want help. They only use the cold shelter when it’s really, really cold, and other than that, they’d rather do something else.”

Greene said the Oxford Police Department and private agencies have responded to concerned calls regarding homeless people in the past. Sometimes, people deny help when an officer or someone else offers.

“We’ll approach a family or a person and say, ‘Can we help you, do you want to get to a shelter?’” Greene said. “Sometimes they’ll say, ‘No, I’m good, thanks’ … That’s called self-determination. People have the right to choose to live the way they want to live or to deny assistance.”

Celeste Didlick-Davis is a visiting faculty member in the department of family science and social work where she teaches family poverty. She said for some, the familiarity of being homeless makes it harder to accept help.

“Sometimes it’s the [mindset of], ‘I’d rather feel free than have to abide by rules that don’t make sense to me,’” Didlick-Davis said. “Sometimes it’s, ‘I’ve had something negative happen to me when I try to live in an organized manner, and I don’t ever want to be put in that position again.’ Sometimes it’s trauma.”

When someone does go to the FRC for help, Hoblitzell said the first option is diversion. The agency looks for family or friends people can stay with or refers them to other agencies if they are located closer to different cities or towns.

Once the FRC decides it is able to assist, the person or family has to meet certain requirements. Their income must fall below 125% of the federal poverty line, which is $12,880 for individuals or $26,500 for a family of four. Additionally, they must reside in the Talawanda School District.

If someone meets the organization’s requirements, the next step is paperwork. Hoblitzell said they go over the rules and gather relevant information to help find employment or a more long-term place to live.

While the requirements may seem strict, Hoblitzell said they don’t normally turn people away without trying to help, especially from the cold shelter.

“We’ve had a couple situations where someone found out about us who was down in Hamilton and came up looking for shelter,” Hoblitzell said. “If everything was full [there], we would bring them in and work with them to try to remedy their situation.”

Oxford’s city officials and non-profit organizations have made strides to help the city’s homeless community during the winter, but the cold shelter operates for only four months of the year. 

While the transitional housing City Council helped fund will operate year round, that leaves eight months of lowered capacity for emergency shelters.

Didlick-Davis pointed out while this may seem problematic, many without homes opt to live outside during the warmer months anyway.

“There’s an uncomfortability between this outdoor living or this homelessness and how to get to stability,” Didlick-Davis said, “and we have become an instant gratification society. [Some people would] rather not have to follow the rules of the homeless shelter.”

Hoblitzell agreed and added that people in Oxford have refused shelter in the summer because Oxford doesn’t have its own long-term homeless shelter.

“I think the need a lot of times for shelter goes down a little bit in the warmer months,” Hoblitzell said. “I’ve met people in my time here that would rather stay outside in Oxford than go to a shelter in Hamilton … We do have folks who live outside during those months.”

While it’s an unfortunate scenario for anyone to find themselves in, Hoblitzell said it’s been gratifying to see the Oxford community rally behind the cold shelter.

“The numbers have shown the need for such a program in the city,” Hoblitzell said, “and I think a lot of the community is rallying around the needs knowing that it’s been used. We’re trying in the midst of this to not only keep people warm and safe, but to give them some tools to move forward into better situations.”