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Columbus Homeless Shelters Serving More Individuals As Pandemic Winter Worsens

Workers at the Community Shelter Board in Columbus hold up blankets donated by Honda in January.
Community Shelter Board
Workers at the Community Shelter Board in Columbus hold up blankets donated by Honda in January.

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic and cold weather are combining to cause a spike in homelessness in Central Ohio.

“We’re seeing a significant uptick in the need, especially among single men,” says Michelle Heritage, executive director of the Community Shelter Board. "Our numbers are higher than we have ever seen them in the past for that population.”

Heritage explains that on some nights, close to 550 men need shelter, whereas before COVID-19, that number stood between 350-400. As many as 200 women are also seeking shelter every night. 

“We know that many people have lost their employment, or their work has been cut, and so especially people making very low wages, it doesn’t take much to push them over the edge and not be able to pay their rent, not be able to make ends meet,” Heritage says.

Heritage says about 80 families each night have sought out help for a warm place to stay, which is fewer than before the pandemic. She thinks that they are able to stay with friends or family who may have more sympathy during winter months in a pandemic.

The Community Shelter Board has also prioritized COVID-19 prevention standards. Heritage says that federal CARES Act funding has made it possible to expand their aid. The board is renting an entire hotel on the city’s North Side to house 189 single men. 

“We opened additional shelter beds, a couple hundred additional shelter beds, to make sure we could get everybody inside,” Heritage says. “And also that we could spread everyone apart. All shelter beds within our system are able to have social distancing and these protocols.”

Recently, the Community Shelter Board found out that federal funding in 2021 would stay the same as last year’s, about $19.3 million. About 41% of its budget comes from federal money.

Heritage says the organization is being recognized for the scope of its outreach – last year, the board served about 14,000 people through its 16 agencies.

“We’re really proud of that,” Heritage says. “We’re bringing more federal dollars to our community to respond to homelessness, and that’s because we are seen as a national model. Columbus and Franklin County, for many years, has been recognized in this way.”

Heritage does worry that the economy will be even slower to recover from the pandemic than it took during the 2009 Great Recession. And in the meantime, temperatures this weekend are expected to enter the single digits.

“When it gets this cold, it becomes absolutely dangerous,” Heritage says. “It is a risk of safety and life when it becomes this cold. So, we do have street outreach teams out on the street encouraging everyone to come inside. We have room for everyone that needs shelter.”

Debbie Holmes has worked at WOSU News since 2009. She has hosted All Things Considered, since May 2021. Prior to that she was the host of Morning Edition and a reporter.