By Eric Friedlander
As Louisville’s chief resilience officer, I understand our city is only as resilient as our most vulnerable population. That’s why it is vital we address the challenges facing people who are homeless.
This is not an easy task; there is no quick fix. Homelessness is a complex challenge that combines poverty, substance abuse, behavioral health, domestic violence, children aging out of foster care – and sometimes, plain bad luck.
It is a national problem exacerbated by the opioid epidemic; failure of state and federal funding to keep up with behavioral health needs; and a widening gap between rich and poor.
We are all impacted, from the homeless individual to the business person navigating downtown streets, to a family living near an encampment. In Louisville, there are an estimated 300 to 500 people living unsheltered. There are around 400 emergency shelter beds, plus another 100 on White Flag (severe weather) days.
Since spring, Metro Government has been actively working with dozens of partners we convened a Homeless Encampment Task Force to develop solutions to this challenge.
The Task Force, which enhanced communications among government, police and other stakeholders, and established more compassionate policies and procedures for dealing with encampments, also identified gaps in our safety net.
That includes the need for a place where homeless residents can store their belongings. Homeless people often don’t want to enter a shelter for fear of losing their possessions. So we’re working with the Metro Housing Authority, Downtown Partnership and St. John Center to create a storage system. We’ve identified a location, containers and an operator, and are working on a budget and operational structure.
Acting on another Task Force recommendation, Mayor Fischer’s budget included funding for a study to more precisely understand homelessness here, including demographics like age, gender and family structure, data that will help us pinpoint the types of shelter and services needed. The study will include recommendations for local solutions, including, perhaps, a low-barrier shelter.
The task force identified that as a need, but it’s a multimillion-dollar project, and there are multiple questions to resolve before we move forward: Where should it go? How big should it be? How do you keep families with children separate from individuals with behavioral health issues? How do we fund the cost to build and staff it?
We are supportive of a Metro Council proposal to earmark the bulk of a $600,000 budget surplus to address the homeless crisis. We’re working with the Coalition for the Homeless and other partners to develop options that would have the greatest impact — ranging from renting rooms for families at Hotel Louisville through the winter, to establishing temporary shelters for people in camps outside of downtown.
We want to get this right. We know that no one idea will address the multiple issues impacting people who are homeless, nor the complex needs of this diverse population. That’s why I am so appreciative of the work, expertise and understanding of our partners, including organizations that are part of the Coalition, and the street outreach groups that engage people where they are.
Working together, we’ve shown we can make a difference.
Our city has invested $41 million in affordable housing over the past four years. We’re implementing a plan to battle substance use disorders, and we direct $1.5 million in federal funding to local agencies like the Coalition, Volunteers of America, St. John Center, and Wayside.
We’ve created Shelter Works, a collaboration to get individuals from day shelters to employment. With Council and community partners, we expanded The Living Room, which helps stabilize people in a behavioral health crisis and move them into services, instead of hospitalization or jail. And soon, Healing Place will open an additional 200 beds for individuals struggling with substance use.
Our city was one of the first to sign onto the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness in 2014. Working with our partners, we secured housing for all 360 known homeless veterans at the time in our city by November 2015. Now we have procedures in place to house homeless veterans as soon as we identify them.
In August 2017, we launched the 100-Day Challenge to house homeless youth, with a goal to house at least 100 in that time; we housed 115. Based in part on that success, our city received a $3.4 million HUD grant to further that work.
That kind of support from state and federal government is key, but it will take all of us in this compassionate community — government, individuals, places of faith and businesses — to make a real impact. Find ways to plug in at the Coalition for Homeless website, or one of the many street outreach teams.
Please join us as we work to create a national model for compassionate solutions to homelessness.
Eric Friedlander is chief of the Louisville Metro Office for Resilience and Community Services.