A Moment of Grace for Cincinnati Families in Need

Photography by Merrilee Luke-Ebbeler

St. Vincent de Paul has been a respite for the poor, lonely and forgotten in Cincinnati since 1869 – the same year the Red Stockings began playing baseball. Both organizations will celebrate 150 years in 2019. Although St. Vincent de Paul is long established, many people are unaware of the full scope of the organization and all they do for our community.

Greater Cincinnati has basked in positive national publicity over the past couple of years for its vibrancy, however, the region still struggles with significant poverty, homelessness and a high infant mortality rate. “There seems to be a disconnect,” says Mike Dunn, executive director at St. Vincent de Paul (SVDP). “We want to tackle those issues with what we call emergency assistance. We help folks whether it’s a loss of job, under-insured, or a medical need. We’re here as a resource and we’ll find a solution or at least steer them in the right direction.” 

One of the main functions of SVDP is home visits. It begins with what are called conferences, and there are 59 locations in Cincinnati. More than 950 volunteers visit people in the community and assess their individual needs, basic necessities like food, clothing, rent, utilities and furniture. “This is the beauty of our organization – at its heart, we’re volunteer based,” says Dunn. 

The Liz Carter Outreach Center is the central location and acts as support for anyone who doesn’t live within the conference area. The center is also a place for cases that require more professional assistance than volunteers may be able to provide. 

The assistance SVDP bestows helped more than 125,000 people in 2014. The reason why SVDP believes in the importance of home visits is so volunteers are able to truly fill in gaps that these families have, whether they were requested or not. 

For example, Maxine took over as the sole provider for her niece’s four children, ages 7, 6, 4 and 3. Maxine is a fantastic caregiver and the children adore her, but she struggled with the added responsibility. Her job was sufficient to support herself, but not four additional family members. “She came to us asking only for beds,” says Kristen Klein, director of development at SVDP. “We visited her home and said ‘yes, you need beds, but you’ve taken on so much and we can help out in many ways.’” 

Staff members took Maxine to the SVDP program called Shop with a Bengal, where Cincinnati’s NFL players take a number of kids to Toys “R” Us, give them a budget of $300 and let them choose their Christmas presents. That program essentially gives children a holiday they wouldn’t have had otherwise. 

Klein stays in touch with Maxine, checking in every couple of months to ensure her needs are being met and letting her know there’s someone out there worrying about her and her children’s well being. “This is why we go into people’s homes,” says Klein. “A lot of people don’t want to ask for help. We saw a need that went far beyond just beds, Maxine needed additional support and it’s great to be able to give that to her.” 

Homeless prevention is an essential component of SVDP. In 2014, $1,007,081 of assistance with rent or utilities was provided to 5,951 families. Six months later, nearly 90 percent of those helped were still in their homes. “Keeping families in their homes is not only more cost-effective, it’s also emotionally effective,” says Klein. “Spending a few hundred dollars to keep them in their home versus them becoming homeless and having to try and enter a shelter system, then try to get housing several months later costs significantly more. It also does damage emotionally and physically to families.” 

The 2014 Cincinnati Family Homelessness Services Study points out that the Shelter Division Program and SVDP’s homelessness prevention program each demonstrate successful outcomes, but lack sufficient resources to meet the needs of the many families on the brink of homelessness. 

There are many ways the community can help SVDP, including monetary donations, planned donation, thrift store donations, or volunteering, to name only a few.

During the holidays, SVDP wants to give families the means to celebrate in ways they might not be able to provide otherwise. One such program is the Angel Toy Drive. Families can visit the Liz Carter Outreach Center, which is transformed into a winter wonderland, with unwrapped toys for parents to pick out for their children. Families can bring their children to make crafts, play games and visit Santa while the parents shop for gifts. 

Another hallmark program is called Adopt a Family. “We match up families in need with individuals and companies willing to help them have a Christmas in general,” says Dunn. “Without those donors they wouldn’t have anything under the tree.” In addition to toys, these families are also given basic household necessities like pots and pans – whatever is on their wish list of needs. 

Food is also a prominent requisite, and SVDP provides this through neighborhood-based pantries, food closets and individual home visits. The holidays are a huge time of need, and SVDP gives out more than 1,200 complete dinners the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, and also before Christmas. Food from the Heart is a major initiative from mid-November through December. SVDP partners with Fox 19 and Kroger to collect nonperishable items. In 2014, 90,000 meals were given to Cincinnati families. 

The Ozanam Center for Service Learning is a unique way of not only giving back to the community, but also becoming educated about the poverty in our city. “How it works is several high school groups each spend a week with us,” says Klein. “We take them throughout the city and show them what it’s like to live in poverty.” The program is also available for adults as a daylong, weekend, or weeklong retreats.   

The Charitable Pharmacy, which opened in 2006, is the only pharmacy in Southwest Ohio dedicated to providing free medication and professional pharmaceutical care to neighbors in need. The Charitable Pharmacy has filled more than 270,000 prescriptions with a total estimated retail value of more than $20 million. It filled more than 36,000 prescriptions in 2014 alone. Pharmacy services also include health screenings, one-on-one education of illnesses, help with follow-up, and information on diet, exercise and smoking cessation. 

Perhaps the most well known aspect of SVDP is the seven thrift store locations around the city, an integral part of the organization. They are essential for those who cannot purchase basic necessities or need to shop on a budget. Items you no longer have use for could give hope to a family for their future. You can call 513.421.CARE for free pick up, drop them off at a thrift store location or at any of the more than 30 convenient donation boxes. 

Dunn says that all of the services offered by SVDP work toward the goal of preventing homelessness. “We can keep those families in their homes and give them tools and support they need to let them never see the streets, never enter a shelter. That is what St. Vincent de Paul is founded upon; a mission of keeping people in their homes.”   

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul is located at 1125 Bank Street, Cincinnati, OH 45214. You can give a financial gift by calling 513.421.HOPE, or for volunteer information call 513.562.8841 ext. 211 or visit their website at www.SVDPcincinnati.org.