Bethany House: One Step Closer to Home
In November 2019, Bethany House Services in Cincinnati, Ohio, announced that the organization was selected as a recipient of the Bezos Day 1 Families Fund leadership award – receiving a gift of $1.25 million, the largest in its history. The grant’s impact reaches far and wide in the Greater Cincinnati area. As the largest homeless shelter in the area, Bethany House serves homeless families with children. What many may not be aware of is that its beginnings can be traced back to the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, their charism of recognizing the needs of their sisters and brothers, and their courage to dare to risk a caring response.
In 1983 Sisters of Charity Delia Sizler and Mary Grafe (now deceased), along with the help of Becky Johnson, a social worker and known advocate of the homeless in Cincinnati, decided it was time for change. S. Dee had been ministering as assistant dean of students at the College of Mount St. Joseph and after realizing that there were women who did not have a place to live when the dorm closed for holidays and summers, she felt compelled to act. After much prayer and many discussions and meetings with individuals in the area, the women found a home on Woodburn Avenue in Cincinnati that was being vacated by the Franciscan Friars. With donations of furniture and items for the home, the three moved in and began their work. One of the first important matters of business included a name for the ministry.
Dee recalls: “I was sitting in the little room we had for our chapel and I was trying to figure out what to name the house. I opened my Bible and it said Bethany – in relation to the story of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. I came to understand in that prayer period that we were the same distance from Fountain Square as Bethany was from Jerusalem. Our house was a house of hospitality; we were taking people in that needed to be refreshed, to find their way. That’s pretty much what Martha, Mary and Lazarus did for Jesus and his people. It was a fitting name and everyone else agreed.”
Continued support and donations came in – as well as families. And just as they were getting settled the Sisters were informed that their house had been sold and they would need to find a new place of residence. Being homeless themselves, God’s providence was at work, and eventually they were able to secure a new home in Mount Auburn. Sisters Dee and Mary continued to live in the home with the families.
“Living with the families was a beautiful thing for me,” S. Dee recalled. “I grew so much spiritually. The women were good people; good people who had fallen on hard times. They would join us to eat a meal, helped us with cooking or cooked themselves, and we’d pray together. We had a weekly potluck and we kept in touch with many who had left the house and moved on because we became their support. A few women even came back as volunteers. It really was a community. We had fun together!”
It was at one of those potluck dinners that S. Mary Stanton, RSM, joined the Sisters and families and fell in love with the ministry. Eventually she was named director of Bethany House. A few years after the organization was more established, S. Dee would leave Bethany House for other ministries. S. Mary Grafe followed a couple years later. S. Mary Stanton stayed on for 30 years. As the organization continued to grow, it began acquiring new properties and staff support to help offer the services needed for its families. Today Bethany House serves 50 percent of homeless families and 62 percent of homeless children in the region. BHS provides housing, education and assistance to homeless families while holistic services, emergency shelter, housing, comprehensive case management, post-shelter support and permanent affordable rental housing address a family’s current needs and seek to prevent repeat episodes. In addition Bethany House provides child/parent and life skills programming. From its early beginnings the organization continues to grow and make an impact.
As she reflects, S. Dee says, “It was God’s work – to help the people that weren’t being helped. Those of us blessed with family upbringings and the life tools needed to be successful, we take those for granted. Being able to help those brought up in poverty, those never given the opportunity to develop their talents and succeed or to have a happy family – that was a real blessing. It was a beautiful chapter in my life. …”
As a current board member of Bethany House and member of the development and executive committees, S. Lynn Heper puts a human face to the organization with her many stories and accounts.
“A lot of our parents have lost their job, and are living in their car. We had a dad last year who came with a 2- and 4-year-old and they had been camping out at Burnet Woods for two months. He didn’t even have a shirt on but he had this jacket. A staff member asked if he needed clothes, and he told her that he had torn up his shirt for the children to use as toilet paper. Every case is different. When you think about the homeless and you see the pictures from downtown, you never see the children because Job and Family Services would take those children away. So they hide. We had another mother with three children who would hide in different places at Children’s Hospital because she didn’t have anywhere to go.”
Lynn explains that in order to fully meet the needs of the community Bethany House is embarking on a $16.5 million capital campaign to create a consolidated family shelter and service center. The new facility will enable the organization to serve more families every year and provide the best quality care and access to a full range of services. The Bezos Day 1 grant will go toward the cost of this new facility.
With more than 1,400 homeless families in the Greater Cincinnati each year, the regional homeless system is at capacity and struggling to meet the need. Says S. Lynn, “I didn’t realize the number of children affected by homelessness. We have got to help people in Cincinnati to realize it is up to us to get these people off the street. If you care about people, you show it. I hear these stories of our families and they break my heart. I really want to help these people get out of where they are. I want them to do good and I want their children to see a better life. It doesn’t have to be like this. We as citizens need to help break the chain.”
A modern, consolidated, communal-style facility will enable Bethany House to drastically enhance efficiency and maximize resources; improve the quality of the emergency shelter facilities; and ensure all families have access to the services and care they need. S. Lynn says it’s truly amazing to see how few return after leaving Bethany House and credits that to programming and services provided to its guests, including adult education and mentorship, support groups and counseling.
Giving back and getting involved have been life-giving to S. Lynn and she is incredibly proud to share those moments with her 13-year-old godson, Dominic. She brought Dominic and his mother with her one morning to serve breakfast at one of Bethany House’s homes. Seeing firsthand the children and families and their appreciation for this small effort touched their hearts and prompted them to do more. “It was a good learning experience,” added S. Lynn. “I don’t think young people today know what homelessness is. I had no idea before I became a board member of all the integral things involved.”
From its small beginnings to currently being the largest provider of emergency shelter and housing programs for families experiencing homelessness, Bethany House Services is leading families one step closer to home. Care and comfort, community and support, encouragement and inspiration, the organization continues to stay true to the Sisters of Charity spirit it was built on.