Marcus Reed of M&M BBQ grills outside the day shelter operated by Ekklesia Christian Life Ministries as Gregory Wayne McGomery looks on. | Photo by Michael L. Jones

After years of finding people sleeping on the steps of Ekklesia Christian Life Ministries and having families knocking on the door looking for help, Rev. Stephan Kirby decided in November to turn the annex off the church’s main sanctuary into a day shelter for low-income and homeless people in the neighborhood.

Too many people in Louisville consider homelessness a downtown problem due to the homeless camps that have popped up under the expressway ramps on Jefferson Street, Kirby said.

He’s hoping Ekklesia’s shelter will help change the conversation to the needs of low-income communities. His church is located near the intersection of Bluegrass Avenue and Taylor Boulevard, a couple of blocks from Sts. Mary and Elizabeth Hospital, in one of the poorest census tracts in the city.

“This is something that we had to do because we saw the need,” Kirby told Insider. “People usually don’t think about homelessness outside 264, but it is everywhere. When I was coming to work today, there was a homeless guy sitting on the front porch waiting for me. There was another guy panhandling on the corner, and if I’d gotten off the expressway, I probably would have seen some more guys panhandling at the exits.”

The Ekklesia shelter is open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and offers food, a community room with a television and games, a clothes closet, a daycare for kids, assistance signing up for social services and a washer and dryer.

The facility serves about 15 people a day, Kirby said, but he expects that number to increase as news spreads about the shelter, which is the only one in south Louisville.

Natalie Harris, director of the Coalition for the Homeless, said previously that “statistics from the homeless management information system show about half the people who are homeless in the system come from the 10 ZIP codes where the majority of the poverty is in our community. Mostly, west and south Louisville.”

Louisville Metro Government allocated more than half a million dollars at the end of 2018 toward helping the city’s homeless population, mostly by opening low-barrier shelters. The money was awarded to established downtown social services organizations like Wayside Christian Mission, Volunteers of America, The Healing Place and St. John’s Day Center.

St. Stephen Baptist Church was to receive $97,500 for a low-barrier shelter but had to change its plans after an inspector ruled the property unfit for residential use. Debbie Belt, a spokesperson for the Office of Resilience and Community Services, said the city is working with St. Stephen to revise its budget since it will now only work as a day shelter.

Rev. Stephan Kirby of Ekklesia Christian Life Ministries. Courtesy of Kirby

Kirby said he talked to Mayor Greg Fischer about receiving some of the surplus funding before the spending plan was announced but didn’t receive the information in time to apply.

“The mayor put me in touch with some people, but I never received a call back until after the holidays. By that time, they came out with a letter saying all of these organizations on the other side of 264 already got the money. In other words, the people who were already doing it. But the mayor had put out a call for other people to step up and we did,” Kirby explained.

Belt said the agencies that received funding submitted proposals in response to a request for proposals sent out by the Coalition for the Homeless on behalf of Louisville Metro Government.

“This plan and funding are for short-term assistance, through the remainder of this fiscal year which is June 30, 2019. Our hope is that there will be additional funding included in next fiscal year’s budget,” she said.

At the moment, Ekklesia’s day shelter is funded by Kirby and his congregation, he said, but Ekklesia intends to apply for city funding in the future, and the church has partnered with Victor Rice, CEO of Amazing Childcare Learning Center, to go after other public money.

Kirby said he did not know how much had been spent on homeless services thus far, but he said it was a substantial amount, and the church would need help in order to expand the shelter’s hours and services.

Putting more homeless services in the neighborhoods outside of downtown would ease some of the problems in the city, he said.

Amanda Mills of the Southend Street Angels agrees that there should be more homeless services in south Louisville, but she said the area needs a shelter that is more centrally located than the one Ekklesia operates.

The Southend Street Angels serves the homeless citizens of Shively, Pleasure Ridge Park, Valley Station and Iroquois. The group offers meals, clothes and rides downtown where most of the city’s homeless services are found. The organization serves up to 60 people a week, Mills said.

The Ekklesia Christian Life Ministries sign advertising the church’s homeless services. Photo courtesy of Michael L. Jones

While she applauds what Ekklesia is doing, Mills said the church’s impact is limited by its location.

“People out in Valley Station would find it hard to get there because there is no direct bus line. Transportation is an important factor. That is why so many places are downtown; most bus lines go there. Many times we are picking up people on Dixie Highway and taking them downtown,” Mills added.

Mills has encountered homeless people in south Louisville who did not want to leave the community, she said, even when they were homeless. So, she thinks there is a need for a centrally located shelter or more small shelters like the one at Ekklesia.

Until that happens, Mills said, she would like to see TARC adopt a policy that would let homeless people ride to shelters for free.

Kirby said he and his congregation intend to press on with their own homeless service plans whether the church gets outside help or not. Ekklesia is in the process of adding showers on the first and second floors of the annex, and Kirby said the next step is creating space to serve as temporary housing for up to 4 families.

“We are looking at 90-day programs where we help the parents get back on their feet and the kids can still go to school, so they don’t really miss a beat,” Kirby said. “A lot of people are just a paycheck away from being homeless. We look at like the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus was saying ‘When I was hungry, you fed me. When I was naked, you gave me clothes, and when I was without, you gave me shelter.’ ”

Michael L. Jones
Michael L. Jones, a freelance journalist and author, covers communities for Insider Louisville. His latest book "Louisville Jug Music: From Earl McDonald to the National Jubilee" (History Press) received the 2014 Samuel Thomas Book Award from the Louisville Historical League. In addition to his contributions to Insider, his writing appears regularly in LEO Weekly, Louisville Magazine, Food & Dining – Louisville Edition, and Who’s Who Louisville: African American Profiles. He also sits on the board of directors of the National Jug Band Jubilee. Jones and his wife, Melissa Amos-Jones, a physical therapist, live in the Kenwood Hills neighborhood near Iroquois Park.