One Step Closer to Home

After 33 years, Bethany House Services Steps Up Again for Homeless Families.

Photo by Daniel Smyth


Social welfare experts estimate that in any given year approximately 7,000 people are homeless, living on the streets or in an emergency shelter in Hamilton County. 

Although many people are aware of the cycle of poverty, what they might not appreciate is that up to one-third of homeless people are families – typically single mothers and their children. 

“The typical image of a homeless person is a shabbily dressed man on the corner holding a cardboard sign,” says Susan
Schiller, executive director of Bethany House Services (BHS), which has been providing shelter to families since 1983. “A major problem we face is the lack of awareness that there is family homelessness. People don’t realize the sheer number of homeless children in our community.”

For example, in 2015 the Bethany House shelters served 909 individuals. Of those, 610 were children. Including the other family shelters, more than 1850 children stayed in Hamilton County shelters in 2015. 

“The face of homelessness is the face of women and children,” says Sister Mary Stanton, who helped start Bethany House Services in 1983. 

Bethany House is one of four Greater Cincinnati agencies that shelter homeless families. It has 35 employees and more than 1,300 volunteers today. 

Significantly, in the last year, Bethany House has become the leading provider of family shelter, growing from 30 beds to 130 after taking over the former Mercy St. John’s shelter program operated by Mercy Health. 

Schiller has steered BHS through the huge growth spurt a year and a half after she replaced Stanton as director. Bethany House now serves 53 percent of the area’s homeless families after adding the 100 beds previously scattered in three apartment buildings in Over-the-Rhine, Mt Auburn and Walnut Hills. BHS added the beds when Mercy announced it was getting out of the social service arena to concentrate on its healthcare system. In 2016 BHS relocated the beds to three apartment buildings near its original 30-bed facility in South Fairmount. 

The prospect of losing 100 shelter beds earmarked for families presented a potential crisis for family service agencies. 

“We were looking at the possibility that a large amount of emergency shelter capacity for families would have closed if Bethany House hadn’t stepped up. It would have meant more women and children living on the streets,” says Kevin Finn, CEO of Strategies to End Homelessness, an oversight agency that coordinates the efforts of 30 Greater Cincinnati agencies that deal with the homeless.   

Schiller felt it made good business sense, as well as being the right thing to do, for Bethany House to expand. 

“I saw we needed to grow and get up to scale,” she says. “With a small operation, we were facing operational deficits. The BHS Board of Directors enthusiastically supported the change.” 

Bethany House has always been respected for providing a positive, safe family shelter environment and quickly finding families affordable housing.  In 2014 it was the #1-rated shelter in the region based on positive outcomes by a local funder. Its residents averaged a 30-day stay, considered a good standard in the social welfare world. 

Schiller says that average stay has increased in the last year because of the daunting task of assuming the additional beds, but reports the average stay is coming back down again as BHS adapts to both the increased numbers and larger families. 

Finn says it was not unexpected there would be bumps in the road for BHS as it more than tripled its capacity. It was as if Bethany House went from being a mom-and-pop grocery to a superstore overnight. 

Of course, Bethany House was only mom-and-pop if you consider “mom” was a Catholic nun. 

Under Stanton’s guidance, Bethany House became known for its communal, nurturing sprit. For 30 years, Stanton shaped the shelter’s operation, acquiring the current late 1800s mansion as a shelter in 1987 in South Fairmount. She instituted educational programs, advocated for the right to a decent home, held parenting classes, gardening sessions, job counseling, literacy programs and wellness sessions. She involved hundreds of volunteers, the business community and secured government funding for housing programs. 

Stanton retired as director in 2013, while continuing her grass-roots community advocacy work on behalf of the poor and elderly. 

“BHS has never felt like a social service agency or an institution where you go to receive services,” Stanton says. “It has always been a relationship you entered. Families are welcomed with a care package and told how to participate in meals, clean up, do laundry and look for a job. It was about supporting a family unit until they got back on their feet again.”

That spirit continues under Schiller’s guidance, as Bethany House remains far more than just a location for emergency beds offering a range of services to women. 

Schiller says Bethany House provides a sanctuary for desperate homeless families who need assistance to re-establish independent living.  “Our shelter meets a family’s immediate needs for housing, food, and necessities as they come to us from the street or living in their car. Most children arrive with only the clothes on their backs and an exhausted mother. Homeless children are not only at risk for abuse, hunger and neglect – most have already endured adverse events. They are frightened, hungry and often chronically ill.” Bethany House provides a safe haven for the entire family while the parents work to identify and overcome barriers to independent living.

Three other agencies provide family shelter in Greater Cincinnati:
 Interfaith Hospitality Network, Salvation Army and the YWCA (limited to domestic violence victims). Together these four agencies, known as the Family Housing Partnership (FHP), work collaboratively to make the systems affecting homeless families in Cincinnati respond more effectively. 

Schiller says there is remarkable cooperation among the four. “It is unlike any other collaboration that you will see in the social services sector in Cincinnati,” she says. “By bringing together the four family shelters and a comprehensive network of collaborators in the city, we can provide a coordinated, integrated approach to serving homeless families. Our case managers meet once a week. Our leadership gets together every other month. There is a level of trust.”     

That collaboration is fostered by Strategies to End Homelessness, the agency founded in 2007 by Finn, a social worker who once worked as an intern under Stanton at Bethany House. It coordinates the activities of the organizations serving the homeless and oversees the funding process determining the most efficient use of federal, county and city grants. 

Finn praised Bethany House for also assuming the Mercy shelter diversion program, a critical proactive program that intervenes with families before they go on the street or show up at a shelter. 

As the name suggests, shelter diversion diverts families at imminent risk of homelessness by putting them directly into permanent housing, bypassing the trauma of going to a shelter. 

“Many are sleeping on couches or with friends and know they have to get out. We have a window of opportunity,” Finn says. “We connect them to case management, find an apartment and pay rent for an average of three-six months. The program is 91 percent successful in keeping people from becoming homeless.” 

“Our case managers work to get the family into housing as quickly as possible,” says Schiller. “Best practice calls for ‘housing first,’ then you address the other issues a family might need to be stabilized.” 

Bethany House and other local family shelters get high marks for the job they are doing, but the system cannot accommodate the majority of families in need. This good news-bad news was illustrated in the 2014 Cincinnati Family Homelessness Services Study. It found four out of five families served in a shelter did not return to the streets, and once in housing 90 percent were eventually able to stay on their own means. But the study found the system remains overwhelmed. For example, 69 percent of families who seek emergency shelter or diversion are turned away, largely due to lack of capacity. 

Schiller says about 60 percent of the BHS budget is covered by government grants, which means private philanthropy and volunteers, are critical to closing the gap. Perhaps foremost among the Bethany House “angels” is Robert S. Heidt, Jr., MD, one of the area’s leading sports medicine physicians and CEO of Wellington Orthopaedic & Sports Medicine. The Heidt Family Foundation, established by the physician and his wife Julie, to help local charities and Catholic educational efforts, has been a major contributor to BHS.  Rob and Julie have volunteered and supported  the shelter for nearly 20 years after being “recruited” by Stanton. 

“Sister Mary exudes this energy. I have always thought of her as the Mother Teresa of Cincinnati,” Dr. Heidt says. “We were stricken by her dream. We loved her vision and the mission of Bethany House.”  

Heidt, a former BHS board member, still caters a meal once a month to the shelter and supports the agency financially. He says that rarely in charity work do you see the results of your labors as vividly as one does at Bethany House. 

“We loved that we were not only helping women and children, but we were giving them a new life,” Dr. Heidt says. “We learned over 85 percent were getting off welfare. It was amazing to see the smiles on women’s faces as they rediscovered and reinvented themselves and families became more wholesome.” 

Dr. Heidt also says he became sensitive to how easy it can be to slide into homelessness, if a family is torn apart by drug abuse or domestic violence. Schiller points out “family homelessness is a complex, multi-faceted issue.” Many factors – the lack of affordable housing, generational poverty, unemployment, the challenges of raising children alone, and mental health issues – all play a part. Homelessness can hit quickly without a support system or a bank account to fall back on.  Something as simple as an illness, a car accident, a job loss or a high risk pregnancy can set off a downward financial spiral. 

“Bethany makes sure people coming in want to have a second chance,” Dr. Heidt says. “You certainly find yourself wiping your eyes when you hear the stories from the women as they come in, but particularly when they come back to tell the success story of where they are now. You can look at these folks and say they have truly been helped.” 

Schiller said Bethany House, along with the Family Housing Partnership, is working to expand its services for the almost 2,000 children it expects to serve in 2016 (see sidebar “Child Poverty in Cincinnati”). “Together we are developing a comprehensive program for the care of children while in shelter. New Child Services Coordinators will facilitate comprehensive assessments of each child’s needs; serve as advocates with the education system; and connect families with the appropriate physical, mental, and behavioral health providers. This critical piece is missing in the shelters today.”  

Schiller explained that family shelters have a unique opportunity to intervene while homeless children are living in our shelters. “Child Services Coordinators will teach social skills, how to focus on their education, expand their horizons through enrichment activities, and learn to make healthy life choices.” The coordinators will also provide parents with the confidence, tools and resources they need to advocate for their children. By addressing the needs of both parents and children, the family can break the multigenerational cycle of homelessness and poverty. 

 Schiller looks at her 10-year olds today and projects “they will be back in the shelter as parents with their own children in eight years if we don’t break this cycle of poverty and homelessness.”

While Bethany staff can empower the families with the solutions to overcome barriers and achieve housing stability and long-term self-sufficiency, Schiller says they can’t do it alone. “We need the help of the community to serve the over 900 individuals who come through the doors every year. And now is the time – the stars are aligned.  With the city’s focus on child poverty, working together we can make a difference, not only in the lives of our homeless families but also in the community for generations to come.”


Bethany House Services is located at 1841 Fairmount Avenue, Cincinnati, OH 45214. For more information, call 513.921.1131 or visit