Monday, December 25, 2000

Woman devoted to aiding homeless

Hamilton City Council member always available

By Earnest Winston
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Katherine Becker spends countless hours responding to calls and pages from police officers who depend on her to find a bed or food for homeless men and women. Or to just lend an ear.

        One recent page came from a Hamilton police officer as Mrs. Becker and friends ate dinner in Cincinnati. The officer spotted a homeless couple living in a wooded area near Ohio 4. Ninety minutes later, Mrs. Becker and the officer were plowing through overgrown brush, making their way to the couple's makeshift home.

[photo] Hamilton City Councilwoman Kathy Becker and police Officer Dominic Spinelli check a lean-to for signs of recent occupation.
(Michael Snyder photo)
| ZOOM |
        What they found was the homeless couple sleeping on a mattress. Beside them was a neat stack of clothes. There were also two pictures clinging to a fence. One was of Jesus. The other was of their two children staring back at them.

        Mrs. Becker, a Hamilton city councilwoman, welcomes calls like this. But it has nothing to do with politics. As coordinator for Greater Miami Case Management, the homeless outreach arm of Transitional Living, this 47-year-old is fulfilling her mission in life: to empower the homeless. She's so passionate about her work that she promises to resign from council should a conflict arise.

        Reaching out beyond both of her jobs, Mrs. Becker has made herself available 24 hours a day to Butler County police whenever they need help dealing with a homeless person found in a vacant building, an alley or under a bridge.

        “They'll do what they can until Kathy can get there to give them assistance,” said Pat Brenner, a close friend of Mrs. Becker's, who has been by her side during homeless calls.

   Born: Oct. 19, 1953, in Cincinnati.
   Education: Attended Miami University-Hamilton; licensed social worker assistant.
   Community involvement: Board member of Hope House and SELF; former co-chair of Butler County Coalition for the Homeless; Hamilton councilwoman; member of Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Fairfield.
   Family: husband, Roger; two sons, Steven, 18, and Matthew, 16.
        “They call her in the wee hours of the morning. It doesn't really matter, she's there. She just feels that this is what she was put on this earth to do.”

        Since July, various police officers have called her about 200 times. And she has answered every call. Police say her presence has created an awareness in their ranks of the plight of the homeless and mentally ill at a time when the number of homeless in the Tristate is rising.

        A recent study by the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless showed the homeless population between 1994 and 2000 rose from at least 18,500 to 30,000. At last count, there were 828 homeless people and 249 homeless families with children in Butler County.

        Suparna Dasgupta, who is involved with Hamilton's homeless outreach program, recalled one bone-chilling night last year. She, Mrs. Becker and a Fairfield police officer took to the streets with blankets and food in search of homeless people.

        “By the time we got done, it was 2 in the morning. And she got paged by the Middletown police because they found a homeless person there and they didn't know what to do with him,” said Ms. Dasgupta, a senior planner with the city of Hamilton.

        “She actually drove out at 2 in the morning to go out to Middletown for that. She goes beyond what anybody would do for something like that.”

        Linda Craft, who works with Mrs. Becker and supervised her for a short period, said she isn't paid for the homeless calls she responds to at 2, 3 or 4 in the morning.

        “She gets herself out of bed and goes and does these things all because she cares enough to do it,” Ms. Craft said. “Not many people are going to do that. Not many people are that devoted.”

        To Mrs. Becker, it doesn't matter that homeless people are among the most elusive, hard-to-count groups in America. It doesn't matter that they are not inclined to be approached by anyone, much less strangers with flashlights in the wee hours of the mornings. And it doesn't matter that she has to trek through woods and junkyards, where the homeless are known to sleep and live.

        Her coat pockets hold soap and toothpaste, just some of the tools she uses to build trust with the people she seeks. Though many homeless people may look like they want to be homeless on the surface, Mrs. Becker's conversations with them reveal otherwise.

        “It's the gratification of finding somebody in need, being able to put them in a shelter and give them food and clothing that's worthwhile to her,” said Mrs. Becker's husband, Roger.

        A few months ago, Mrs. Becker and police tracked down a homeless family behind a plaza. They brought them clothes and found them a warm place to stay.

        The woman was so overcome that she started crying. Mrs. Becker didn't understand. The woman explained: “Well, normally I've always been afraid of police officers, but you've taught me not to be. That they're my friends and that they help people.”

        For her part, Mrs. Becker said her upbringing and father's illness shaped her desire to help people. She felt helpless because her father, who was a diagnosed schizophrenic, spurned treatment and distanced himself from people outside his family. He died in 1982.

        “My philosophy has been throughout life that if I help one person, that it's all been worthwhile,” Mrs. Becker said.

        "I've always felt like no human being should have to live on the streets.”


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