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Cincinnati’s Impoverished Continue to be Underserved and Undercovered

By German Lopez · December 11th, 2013 · Commentary
commentary 2013-12-11

Even though the project already obtained state tax credits and could continue without City Council’s support, some council members appear ready to demonize a supportive housing facility in Avondale that would aid homeless, disabled and low-income Cincinnatians — showing once again that city leaders are largely all talk and no action on the issues of homelessness and poverty.

On Dec. 10, council’s Economic Growth and Infrastructure Committee voted to oppose state tax credits for the facility, following testimony from neighborhood activists who oppose the project and want it shut down.

These residents insist they support efforts to combat homelessness. They just don’t want such a massive facility to become an eyesore or worsen Avondale’s struggles with poverty.

The argument is typical: We want to fight homelessness. We want to provide shelter for the needy. Just don’t do it in my backyard.

Coincidentally, the committee’s decision came on the same day that the winter shelter for the homeless opened with support from the city and county. 

It’s great that City Council — at the last possible minute, no less — provided $30,000 of the $75,000 necessary to keep the winter shelter open through February.

It’s not great the shelter was so strapped for funding that it needed to open so late into the winter, after a snow-and-ice storm ravaged the region for a weekend and forced the city to call a snow emergency.

Both of these events came in the same year that council once again voted to cut human services funding. The money was eventually restored after revenues came in higher than expected, but only after council clearly showed that funding for the homeless and poor is low on their priorities.

That’s something, by the way, that the city consistently proved over the past decade.

The city says its goal is to allocate 1.5 percent of the operating budget to human services. Even after the restorations, human services funding only makes up 0.4 percent of the budget following a decade of cuts. 

And it’s typical of politicians. On the campaign trail, everyone says Cincinnati’s high poverty rate — more than half of the city’s children live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2012 American Community Survey — must be addressed. When it’s time for action, city leaders fold to budget constraints and vocal activists who don’t want “those people” in their neighborhoods.

Admittedly, some of it is the media’s fault. Members of the press often get swallowed in the smaller day-to-day issues and ignore the broader problems facing Cincinnati. Local stories on homelessness and poverty often devolve into misinformed stereotypes and aren’t followed up with enough pressure on city officials to get their house in order.

CityBeat tried to change that on the campaign trail. Child poverty was the one issue we asked each council and mayoral candidate about. But the issue and its broader implications failed to stick like the streetcar project and parking privatization plan did.

When asked why, local leaders say they’d love to talk about those issues, but few seem interested. A common frustration currently shared by city leaders is that the streetcar project is consuming public discourse when there are other big issues facing Cincinnati.

So perhaps some of the blame falls on constituents as well. Maybe Cincinnatians, particularly the politically active, don’t care enough about the city’s struggles with homelessness and poverty.

The theory translates to the metrics guiding many local news outlets these days: Streetcar stories get an incredible amount of website traffic and shares on social media. Stories about the winter shelter, homelessness and poverty pale in comparison.

It makes sense, then, that politicians would be reduced to squabbling and posturing on the streetcar project. If active constituents truly cared about poverty and homelessness and pushed city officials to do something about it, local leaders would have to do more than talk in favor of theoretically increasing human services funding.

Most likely, the issue is everyone’s fault: the media, local leaders and constituents. A city’s child poverty rate doesn’t climb to such abhorrent levels unless a whole group grows complacent and ignores the issue for decades.

Whoever is to blame, City Council at least holds the power to halt the damaging trend once and for all. Council members should consider the opportunity when they decide to support or oppose Avondale’s Commons at Alaska facility.

CONTACT GERMAN LOPEZ: glopez@citybeat.com or @germanrlopez



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