Covering Coronavirus: Cincinnati, Ohio


NISHA BOLDEN: My name is Nisha Bolden and I’m 8 years old.


SOLOMON: So Nisha, tell me where are you right now?


NISHA: In the shelter.


SOLOMON: How is it right now? What have you heard about the news? What’s going on?


NISHA: What’s going on in the news is the coronavirus. My mama, I worry about her because she can’t go to work because the coronavirus. Yesterday she couldn’t go to work and today she can’t.


RANEY ARONSON: This is the Frontline Dispatch.  I’m Raney Aronson, executive producer of FRONTLINE.  Covering Coronavirus is a special series of conversations with our journalists in the field. They’re reporting on this pandemic and how it’s impacting lives across the world moment to moment. 


SOLOMON: When you hear the orders from the governor, from the president, to stay at home, to shelter in place, the reality for many of these people is they don’t have a home.


ARONSON: That’s reporter and filmmaker Ben C. Solomon — he’s in Ohio reporting on how the spread of Coronavirus is affecting people experiencing homelessness. A recent report estimated that in Ohio alone it could cost more than 40 million dollars to help shelter people who are homeless amid the Coronavirus pandemic. And that’s just for three months. Ben’s been spending time with a family navigating this situation.


SOLOMON: They’re the first to be hit with the problems and the last to recover from them.


ARONSON: He joined me from Cincinnati.


FUNDER: The FRONTLINE Dispatch is made possible by the Abrams Foundation, committed to excellence in journalism. And by the WGBH Catalyst Fund.


ARONSON: Ben, hey. Can you hear me? 


SOLOMON: Hey. Yes, I can hear you good.


ARONSON: Thanks for joining us. You’ve been at the Bethany House for a number of days now. And I understand that’s a shelter for families experiencing homelessness. Talk to us a bit about what it’s been like.


SOLOMON: The Bethany House is a family shelter. They take in homeless families from around the city and state and they try to put them in any sorts of housing, whether it be individual apartments, which they have a few of, or in our case, communal living centers, which are basically small dorm rooms with bunk beds that have small playrooms for the kids. A couple cheap PC computers for them to do their homework on. A big couch and then a big TV.


Most of the time this is kind of the last place these people want to end up. They make it as comfortable as they can at Bethany House and they do a good job of taking care of them, but this is a tough place to be. This is a place where you are there because you need to be. So everyone there is trying to get out of homelessness. 


And the reality is now, with coronavirus, it’s not entirely the main focus of these people’s lives there. These people are in the worst positions in their lives — they’re homeless, they’re living with their kids, they’re trying to get their kids out of homelessness, and now, the government, the media — everyone is suddenly telling them that around them, around their complications, are more complications. 


ARONSON: You know, understanding that they’re challenged already economically. So you’re inside a small space and you’re starting to get word about social distancing. What ever does a family do in a shelter situation like that?


SOLOMON: It’s kind of on the workers of the shelter. And that’s kind of their challenge right now — just trying to get people to focus. Trying to get people to understand the complications of the disease to protect themselves from it. 


DENISE HILL: Bethany House, we try to make it like a family when they… when the kids come in, we want it to imitate a home life. My goal is just to make sure the kids have a smooth transition in the shelter, the kids, I ensure that they have snacks, food, milk, juice. I talk to them, I play with them. You know, it’s difficult not to pick a child up. Now you can’t touch anyone. How do you tell a child, you know what, I’m not allowed to touch you now. 


SOLOMON: But as much as they do that and as much as people do want to protect themselves, these people are struggling. And these people are also forgotten. 

These are the people that are the most pushed out of this scenario. And the reality for them and the reality for the lives they live is that they have to go to work, they have to find ways to make money. They’re living in a situation where they’re trying to get out of. And even if there wasn’t a virus outside, they still would have to be trying to get their lives going again. 


So really, when you hear the orders from the governor, from the president to stay at home, to shelter in place — the reality for many of these people is they don’t have a place that they can kind of relax in — they have to work, they have to go out and they have to struggle. 


The places they need to go are closed, the stores are closed, the places where they work are closed. Most of the people that I’ve been following work in service industries — all closed. These are places that are cutting hours or firing staff and really, in just a matter of weeks, most of the opportunities these people had to move out of homelessness — to make money, to get an apartment — those opportunities are going away.


ARONSON: I know you’re following one family in particular. Can you tell me about them?


SOLOMON: So I’ve been spending time with a family of four. Their mother is named Amanda, she has three kids living with her in the shelter — a set of twins and an older daughter. And they are, they moved to Cincinnati earlier this year to get out of a complicated situation in Kentucky where they weren’t safe and they were having gunshots come through their windows. They moved here hoping to move with Amanda’s oldest daughter who is in her 20s, and then just after a few weeks, it wasn’t working. 


They were staying in a one bedroom apartment with six people and they decided to move out. As that happened, as they decided to get ready to get a new apartment, Amanda had decided to move into a homeless shelter to save money and to get ready to pay the expensive down payment and security deposit for an apartment. 


When that happened, the shelter in place order started. Her work, which is at a McDonald’s at the night shift, was completely cut off. She got hours cut, she only works a few hours, and then suddenly, her very organized plan to make the amount of money she needed to move into her new apartment was starting to fade.


Now, she only has a few weeks to make the maybe $1500 that she needs just to get the security deposit fully paid. So she’s trying to find everything she can, she’s trying to call charities, she’s trying to work with unemployment benefits, she’s trying to ask other people at the shelter to help her out. 


But really, there’s just not much people can do because at this time, and the biggest for all of these homeless people and for people struggling at this moment is that people are focusing on themselves. The shelter is not getting donations like they used to, they’re barely getting food donations because most people are getting all the canned goods and keeping them for themselves. 


So Amanda, who is struggling to make you know $1500 and needs it in order to move into this apartment that likely she will lose if she doesn’t get it soon and likely, as the pandemic continues, she won’t be able to find something else. So if she doesn’t get this money soon, she’s not going to be able to move. And if she doesn’t move, she’s going to be stuck in homelessness even further. 


So, she’s worried, her daughters are worried, all the time they’re thinking about the risks that they’re putting themselves in. But really, there’s just no other choice. 


ARONSON: Tell me a little bit more about Amanda, especially thinking about her situation. Really worried about her hours being cut, watching her children, she's homeless. Tell me a little bit about her life and this balance and how she's managing.


SOLOMON: Amanda is managing as best she can. Her life is just a constant state of motion. Whether it be she's trying to find some place for her kids to stay while she goes to work, occupy them during the day cause they don't have school, or getting on her cell phone and trying to sign up for unemployment. Or trying to email or call charities to help support her. She is frazzled, she is exhausted, and she is just trying to keep her family going. The homeless shelter does a great job of trying to help her any way they can but really, at this point, everyone is in need. Everyone needs some support in some sense and really it feels like for her that she's on her own. And for her to balance these kids, and balance her time and her work is really an exhausting and complicated process for her.


AMANDA REESE: I’m not going to lie, I was going to tell my boss, ‘Just take me off until the kids go back to school.’ But then I also have to think, I have a responsibility to them to provide for them as well, but if I get sick then I’m still not going to be able to go to work. And then they’re going to get sick, so it’s like a situation you gotta weigh out what’s going to be best. Everything is just overwhelming and I just try to, you know what, hold up, and I don’t want anybody to see me stressed and I don’t want them to see me stressed. I don’t want them to feel what I’m going through. So, I usually just suck it up and deal with it. 


ARONSON: How have the kids been handling this? What are their stressors and how have they been dealing with all the changing news and their situation as it changes?


SOLOMON: There's not a lot of stability, there's not a lot of constant in their lives. They've got no place to go to school, they've got very few places to play and their living situation is just totally changing from day to day, more so though for the kids. We talked a lot with Amanda's youngest daughter Nisha, who's eight years old and extremely worried for her mother. 


All the time Nisha is telling us about how she's afraid of her mother getting sick, you know she hears a little bit about the virus but she doesn't quite understand everything about it. So all the time, every time her mother is waking her up at 3 a.m. to go to work, she has to worry the entire night. She told us she doesn't sleep as much, she told us she's worrying for her mother every time she steps out.


NISHA: We go to bed early and then when we wake up, we be tired and like our mom already has our clothes out. All we have to do is just put on our clothes and put on our shoes and our jackets. But…


SOLOMON: Do you get tired of moving around?




SOLOMON: The kids are moving from place to place, just last week they moved from the shelter into hotels. When the shelters get shut down there's no stability, there's no constant in their lives and they're just holding on. And also, and more complicated for these kids and for the shelter is there's no school. There's no place to put them during the day.


RANEY: Right, there's nothing to do.


BEN: Exactly, they're just kind of floundering, and just waiting. Their mother, as soon as she gets home from work, tries to give them activities and stuff to do and tries to cook but she's just in a constant state of movement all the time and for the next two weeks her hope is that she will work every night so she'll be able to make the money. But most nights her hours keep getting cut.


RANEY: So since the outbreak you've mentioned to us that Amanda and her family have been moved into a hotel, how did that happen and what was it like? 


BEN: So a few days ago, at the very last minute, the homeless shelters decided that these communal living areas were no longer safe, and in just a matter of hours they decided they were going to move hundreds of people, dozens of families, into empty hotel rooms. It was a total mess, it was just a quick movement of all these people to get into cars and buses. They were loading up plastic bags with food and clothes and just stuffing them in anything they could and quickly getting out of these places and into these hotel rooms. 


They didn't know how they were going to serve food yet, didn't know how they were gonna be able to get enough rooms for everyone. It was just as fast as they could they decided they needed immediately to get out before they put themselves further at risk. So it was just a total mess and hodgepodge of kids running around, carrying big bags, moms trying to grab anything they could from the freezer so they could bring it to the hotel, not knowing if they were gonna have refrigerators there it was just a big mess of people trying to quickly move from this one place to another.


NISHA: We’re taking all this stuff out to my mom’s car. 


SOLOMON: Let’s do it.


AMANDA: If you can’t carry it, don’t hurt yourself baby.


NISHA: I gotta get out something really quick…. No I can’t. 


AMANDA: Just pull it.


SOLOMON: How are you feeling about today?


NISHA: Good. 


BETHANY HOUSE VOLUNTEER: Ladies, everything must be bagged.


SOLOMON: For the kids, they love it. It's great for them. This is cool, this is like a nice hotel room. Most of these kids who are living like under the poverty line have never experienced living a hotel room, so they're excited and they're like really getting a kick out of it. For the families, they're much more organized, they’re cooking themselves, there's a sense of constance and a sense of security there.


ARONSON: Ben, your background has been — and it seems like you can't get away from them — covering pandemics. I was hoping you could talk to me a bit about how you're doing watching this one.


SOLOMON: You know, for me, it's hard to wrap your head around doing the things that I was doing for so long in West Africa and in eastern Congo here in suburban Ohio. For so long in covering Ebola there's so much focus, there's so much kind of stress that goes on with everyday going out into the world and putting yourself at risk and not quite knowing if you have got the sickness or not. 


I've covered many conflicts and wars and when you cover those, you go into a place, conflict is that way, safety is the other way, if you go the other way you're safe and you sleep well and you're fine. But with these outbreaks and these viruses you never quite know when you're safe. It's a constant state of alert and focus and I think most people around the country are feeling that now. For me this is something I experienced covering the last outbreaks of Ebola, but to do this here is something that's completely new, you know? I've spent so much of my career leaving and going to places with complications. 


To have this happen now here in our country, in these homes that I'm familiar with is a really complicated way to see the world and it's really sobering and humbling for me to see that our health system and our society is at the same risks as so many other places in the world. And it's hard to kind of understand how we're gonna get out of this and how we're gonna get to the point where we can pass this, and more so how the world's going to get back to normal if at all. 


ARONSON: I mean, considering all that, Ben, what’s next for Amanda and her family?


SOLOMON: So, what’s next for Amanda is kind of up to the system around her. The reality is is that if she doesn’t make this money by the end of the month, then she will probably have to stay in the system that is supporting her in the shelters and in the current hotels, if they can afford it. That will mean bouncing around more and more. That will mean trying to get more work and trying to support her kids, and that will mean kind of continuing a state of unknown. 


The reality is is that the government, the businesses are all saying that this is going to last a few weeks. But, for someone like Amanda, she can’t be sure and she can’t be understand when she’ll be able to get out of this. Even if she does, the reality is, if Amanda doesn’t get this apartment, she will be struck much longer than anyone else. When people start going back to work, when the pandemic ends and people start going back outside, she will be in a much worse situation than society already left her in before. 


And that’s the reality for so many others. When natural disasters happen, when these big national emergencies happen, they’re the first to be hit with the problems and the last to recover from them. And for Amanda, if she’s not able to get this money, if she’s not able to pay for this apartment, then likely, she’ll be stuck in homelessness for much longer than she wanted to. 


SOLOMON: Do you think it’s hard for people like you?


NISHA: Yea. 


SOLOMON: Tell me about that.


NISHA: I think it’s hard for people like us because you know some jobs, like some jobs are closed, but people, some people can just work and sometimes in their house or in their apartment.


SOLOMON: And you can’t do that. Your mom can’t do that.


NISHA: My mom cannot.


SOLOMON: Do you wish that she could stay home all the time?


NISHA: I wish that could stay home a lot of times because… but like she’s going to work right now. But some jobs are not and she’s going to work every day but not almost because sometimes they’re closed down because she’s trying to earn more money so we can get our apartment so we don’t have to live in a hotel. So like our whole family can come together and we don’t like have to worry about them that much.


ARONSON: Ben, thanks so much for being out there for us in Ohio, and we look forward to continuing our conversation as you're out there filming.


SOLOMON: Thanks. 


ARONSON: Stay tuned for more in our Covering Coronavirus series — next up we’re heading to Athens, Ohio, where filmmaker Jezza Neumann is reporting on school shutdowns, food scarcity, and what that means for low-income kids. 


This podcast was produced by James Edwards and Max Green. 


Our production assistant is Lucie Sullivan.


Katherine Griwert is our editorial coordinating producer. 


Pam Johnston is FRONTLINE’s senior director of strategy and audience.


Lauren Ezell is senior story editor. 


Sarah Childress is our senior editor. 


Frank Koughan is senior producer. 


Andrew Metz is our managing editor.


I’m Raney Aronson, executive producer of FRONTLINE. 


Music by Stellwagen Symphonette.


The FRONTLINE Dispatch is produced at WGBH and powered by PRX.

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