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Friday, December 1, 2017

Lydia’s House – A Respite from the World

By Laura A. Hobson
Photographer of all pictures except kids (tree and Advent calendar) - Julie Thompson
Photographer of kids - Mary Ellen Mitchell

Lydia’s House (photo by Julianna Boehm)
“We see ourselves as a faith response to poverty,” said Mary Ellen Mitchell, executive director, Lydia’s House.

On Mills Ave., a small street in Norwood, you will find Lydia’s House, a home for mothers with small children.  Founded in 2012 as a 501©3 organization, the house offers supportive shelter and transitional services for homeless women with children and takes referrals throughout Greater Cincinnati, often from Greater Cincinnati Behavioral Health Services, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and Talbert House Cincinnati.

Jeff O’Neil, president and CEO, GCB, has worked there for 26 years gradually progressing in his career.  He started as an overnight residential counselor in a group home in East Walnut Hills.  With a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s in agency and community counseling, O’Neil also obtained a clinical endorsement.  Exposed to issues in human development through school programming, O’Neil has seen the impact of severe mental illness on an individual and a family.  O’Neil said GCB serves 15,000 people in the region and is the largest agency serving clients with mental illness in the region. "GCB has a rich history of helping people with severe mental illness and who often have complex needs,” O’Neil said. “In many cases we reach out to them in their community settings and assist them with various life situations. Housing is an important aspect of recovery. Having access to resources in the community, such as Lydia’s House, is essential for us and our clients.  We value quality housing like Lydia’s House that is safe, clean, comfortable and supportive.” 

(Photo by Mary Ellen Mitchell)
Mary Ellen Mitchell and Meridith Owensby met at the Atlanta Open Door in 2002.  They reunited when they both moved back to Cincinnati and started talking about opening a house for women in need. They held their first fundraiser in 2013.  

Owensby, Mitchell and her husband Ben Eilerman led the project.  They found institutional support from their faith communities in the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Ohio, Bellarmine Chapel at Xavier University and Vineyard Central Church.  Mitchell and Owensby had experience working in non-profit and homeless services. 

Eilerman is a registered architect and project manager who lent his expertise in renovating the Mills house, purchased for $40,000 in February 2013 and needing extensive remodeling.  Experienced volunteers donated labor, furniture and supplies.  Mitchell said, “It was a loaves and fishes effort.”  

By spring of 2014, Lydia’s House had two co-directors Mitchell and Owensby.  “It was a challenging year,” said Mitchell.  “We needed more hands.  The first year was a real eye opener.”   After the first year, the leadership team did some soul searching about whom the house would serve.  They decided to concentrate on younger women with children under three. The group connected with various case managers in the city.

Lydia’s House leadership team -  Anne Housholder (Associate Volunteer), Mary Ellen Mitchell Eilerman (Co-Director), Meridith Owensby (Co-Director) (photo by Julianna Boehm)
Demographically, the average guest is African-American, age 25, with a child under the age of three. In addition, 48% of the women have been in foster care, 28% experienced intimate partner violence and 56% have a mental health diagnosis.  Guests stay for approximately 100 days.  After they leave the shelter, 73% of the women remain in stable housing.  

The house can have up to six women and six children at one time.  Leaders operate with a small budget of approximately $112,000.  Mitchell is paid, but volunteers include Anne Householder, M.D., who donates her time.  Dr. Householder was introduced to Owensby and became interested in the way of Christian life together.  She started to volunteer with rehab and then at the house.  She was hooked and became a residential volunteer living in another house on Mills Ave. with Owensby.

Dr. Householder is a member of The Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, which provided $10,000 to Lydia’s House over a four-year period.  Because of the minimal budget, most staff continues to donate a large portion of their sales in kind, and daily operations (cooking, cleaning, transportation, childcare) are largely volunteer led.

Dr. Householder said, “Because of the personalism, we want the clients to be part of community.  How can we create a model for subsidized housing?”  Dr. Householder also offers advice on financial management and problem solving in addition to being a sounding board.  “I learned of the distrust of the system,” she said.

Owensby works with case management and interns, helping clients obtain medical appointments and accompanying them.  “We do more than referrals,” said Mitchell.

Also at the house is a spiritual director Quanita Roberson, who deals with women coming out of the trauma of extreme poverty.  Pastoral care is also given, if needed.  Dr. Householder provides basic medical care.  

Mother and child houseguests of Lydia’s House (photo by Julianna Boehm)
Many volunteers have given money and/or time to Lydia’s House. Volunteers also include Amy Whitlach and Kathy Aerni, both of Oakley. Aerni remembers hearing a presentation about the house to the parish at Bellarmine Chapel at Xavier University by Mitchell, Owensby and Eilerman.  She decided to support the project because of the need in Cincinnati for women and children experiencing homelessness.  Aerni has hosted a kitchen shower for Lydia’s House, provided lunch to volunteers during the reconstruction work on the house, arranged with a quilt group to donate quilts, donated basic household items and made an annual monetary contribution.  

Aerni said, “I admire Mary Ellen and Meredith, the founders, for their commitment to Lydia’s House and the Catholic worker model of service.”

Church of the Advent, Christ Church Cathedral, as well as Xavier University’s Bellarmine Chapel, the Vineyard Central Church and Sisters of Charity have donated funds.

After women leave Lydia’s House, many return for meals, to do laundry, for case management or for emergency cash assistance or food.  Lydia’s House tracks over 70% of the women.  “We stay in connection,” Mitchell said.  Dr. Householder talks about a longitudinal relationship.  They host an event once per month inviting guests back.  Since opening, Lydia’s House has served 32 families.  

From an operations standpoint, “We try to raise the budget a year in advance,” said Mitchell.  In 2017, it was $112,000; in 2018 it will be $150,000.  

As the program grew, in June 2017 Lydia’s House leadership team acquired another property on Carter Ave. in Norwood for $15,000 with private funds from two donors. At that price, it needed massive renovation.  Christ Church Cathedral provided a grant enabling Lydia’s House to hire Ben Eilerman to direct the renovation effort.  Located two blocks away from the shelter property, it had six two-bedrooms and two one-bedrooms as well as a large commercial space.  The plan for the building is to provide units to homeless families exiting Lydia’s House at rents affordable at 30% AMI.  Rents will be subsidized with a zero debt product, cross subsidization of units (Section 8 vouchers), rentals assistance as needed from Lydia’s House budget and utility arrangements.  

The Carter house will have on-site management and support services, access to early childhood development resources in the region (e.g., Every Child Succeeds, Norwood Ready Kids, Preventing Injuries in Norwood) and specific on-site programming for moms with children under the age of five.  According to Lydia’s House personnel, the Carter house would have an early childhood development center assuming funding resources are available.  City zoning would permit this to happen.  

Located in West Norwood, Lydia’s House is near Sharpsburg Elementary School, Norwood YMCA the #4 bus line, the Norwood Kroger, Millcrest Park, a post office, library and community garden.  Lydia’s House has made friends with its neighbors.  Strategies to End Homelessness, LISC – Local Initiatives Support Corporation, Over-the-Rhine Community Housing and Hamilton County Community Development have supported the project.

Lydia’s House celebrates all of December with special activities, including an Advent calendar.  Each week has a theme, like peace, joy and expectation.  There are days when the activities are reflective; some are crafts; some are participatory reading; some are Christmas caroling.  In addition Lydia’s House hosts a party before Christmas.  There will be a dinner, gifts and presents.  On St. Nicholas’ Day, staff will put out house slippers for women.  Individual gifts includes such items as laundry detergent.  Christmas Day is a relaxed time together.

By 2020, Lydia’s House plans to expand housing in Norwood to a total of 24 units allowing for a constant stream of graduates to enter Carter and those exiting to move into single family homes or duplexes scattered throughout the neighborhood.  In addition to self-owned units, Lydia’s House will continue to refer to other housing providers, offering guests a variety of next step housing options.
“One family at a time,” said Mitchell.

For more information on Lydia’s House, please visit the website

Who was Lydia?
According to, St. Lydia, as (per Acts of the Apostles in the Bible) St. Paul’s first baptized convert in Phillippi, is the first recorded person in Europe to become a follower of Jesus Christ.  A wealthy businesswoman from Thyatira, an industrial center in what is now Turkey, she was a manufacturer and seller of purple dyes and fabrics much coveted by royalty, high government officials and pagan priests of the time.  

Having moved to Phillippi, around the year 50 Lydia heard Paul preaching along a river during what was his second missionary journey.  His gospel message moved her and her family to be baptized by him.  With a spacious home to offer, Lydia provided warm hospitality to Paul and his companions while they were in Phillippi as well as a place for community gatherings and liturgies.  
St. Lydia’s selflessness and generous hospitality are perfect models for the care provided by Lydia’s House.

Some Facts About Lydia’s House Guests
According to the Lydia’s House Spring 2017 Newsletter...
- 78% got or maintained employment while living at Lydia’s House; of those, 60% maintained employment for six months or more
- 83% moved into permanent housing from Lydia’s House; of those, 100% maintained that housing for six months or more
- 61% stabilized their health, got a deferred medical procedure or had reliable access to pre-natal and post-partum care
- 66% stay in relationship with Lydia’s House and regularly attend holiday meals, worship services or weekly dinners

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