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Amid rising cost of living, HUD aims money at youth homelessness in rural Ohio

A worker tears down a tan tent from a homeless encampment in the woods.
Anna Huntsman
Ideastream Public Media
In this picture from December 2022, a worker takes down the tent that two people experiencing homelessness had been taking shelter in for about two months. According to Summit County data, the number of individuals living on the streets more than doubled over the past year.

As the cost of living rises, more and more Ohioans are experiencing housing insecurity and homelessness.

Among them are hundreds of kids and young adults: the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio states between 194 and 319 Ohio youth experience homelessness on any given day.

These young people are spread across the state, but in rural areas, services to support them are scarce.

“Where I live in Wood County, there's no emergency shelter,” said Erin Hachtel, a continuum of care coordinator for COHHIO. She says that’s common in rural Ohio counties.

In response, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has given Ohio nearly $5.2 million to combat rural youth homelessness.

The money will allow up to 32 rural and suburban counties to plan and implement community-specific projects to better serve Ohio’s unhoused youth.

Rural youth homelessness in Ohio

While homelessness and housing insecurity are problems throughout Ohio, the issue is often less visible in rural communities.

“We have what we call a hidden homeless problem,” Hachtel said. “We know sometimes people are staying in places that aren't meant for human habitation, like a storage unit, and of course, some folks also can find ways of camping out in a secluded wooded area.”

When kids don’t have a reliable place to live, the effects can be far-reaching.

“We know that there are disruptions to their education,” Hachtel said. “I mean, imagine trying to write a paper for high school while you're staying in your car.”

A child’s physical and mental well-being often suffer too.

“We have what we call a hidden homeless problem.”
Erin Hachtel, continuum of care coordinator for COHHIO

And these effects extend to young adults as well, Hachtel said. Getting a first job and finding an affordable place to live are already challenging, but made even harder without the support of a family network.

Ohio’s youth have access to the state’s broader homeless response system, but many of the existing services are designed for adults. Even finding transportation to reach them can be difficult, Hachtel said, especially in isolated rural communities.

“Young adults don't tend to use the existing adult homeless services as much,” said Marcus Roth, COHHIO’s Director of Communications and Development. “They often feel like it doesn't really fit them, it doesn't address their needs, or sometimes they feel unsafe.”

How this funding can help

COHHIO is working with the Ohio Department of Development to administer the $5.2 million award from HUD, and the first step in that process is planning.

To start, the organizations are working with local partners to better understand community needs. Kids and young adults who have experienced homelessness have a big say in that process.

“It is really intentionally youth-centered,” Hachtel said. “Youth ages 18 to 24 who have lived experience of homelessness will be at the table and helping to make decisions about the kinds of projects, and the project designs, that make the most sense to help prevent and end youth homelessness.”

Hachtel believes ending youth homelessness in Ohio is a real possibility.

“When we think about addressing homelessness within a particular population, we have seen success,” she said. As an example, she cites the reduction of homelessness in the veteran population as a result of a ‘housing first’ approach — where organizations prioritize finding someone housing, then address other issues like health care, substance abuse and job training.

She hopes this funding can start the state down the same path to success for Ohio’s kids.

Erin Gottsacker is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently reported for WXPR Public Radio in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.