The Louisville Metro Council Budget Committee held a special meeting on Thursday to discuss emergency homeless services. | Photo by Michael L. Jones

The Metro Council Budget Committee held a special meeting on Thursday to get an update on the progress being made to provide emergency homeless services in the community.

Eric Friedlander, chief of resilience and community services for the city, and Natalie Harris, the executive director of Coalition for the Homeless, presented a progress report that many council members praised as a huge accomplishment in such a short period, but it left some other committee members with concerns about the long-term effectiveness of the plan.

In its last meeting of 2018, the Metro Council appropriated more than $500,000 in surplus funds to the creation of low-barrier shelters and the expansion of other homeless services this winter.

Mayor Greg Fischer’s administration submitted a detailed spending plan to the council on Jan. 2 and it went into effect on Jan. 14.

Friedlander said based on information from the Homeless Encampment Task Force, the administration knew some homeless people avoided shelters out of fear of being separated from their partners, pets and possessions. The plan addressed these issues through the creation of low-barrier shelters, increased housing for families and the use of shipping containers as temporary storage space for the homeless to address these concerns.

The city partnered with the St. John Center for Homeless Men, The Healing Place, Wayside Christian Mission, Volunteers of America, St. Stephen Baptist Church and Uniting Partners for Women and Children to provide these services to the homeless population.

The biggest issue, Friedlander said, was with St. Stephen, which was appropriated $97,500 to create a low-barrier shelter for families. However, the church had to change its plans after an inspection found that the building they planned to use was unfit for that purpose.

St. Stephen has since opened the facility as a day shelter. Friedlander said it would take a major capital investment by the church to add sprinklers and additional exit to bring the building up to code.

“We ran into some really significant issues, and I feel like since I used to work for the Inspector General’s office, I should have seen them coming because I know what the life safety code is. Once you get over a certain number of people, once you sleep overnight, all of a sudden the facility rules change. That’s a change of use,” Friedlander explained.

Committee member Brent Ackerson, D-26, said he was disappointed about the situation with St. Stephen and also did not like the fact that the Volunteers of America is only housing five families when it was contracted to provide services for 10.

Ackerson suggested the city consider reallocating some of the money earmarked for St. Stephen and VOA, if they can not provide the services they agreed to perform.

“We’re not talking about a long-term situation here where we seed something and watch it grow,” Ackerson said. “We’re talking about emergency assistance. Basically, the question is, ‘How to maximize these dollars?’ ”

Friedlander said VOA is not required to house 10 families at once, but in total over the life of the program. As for St. Stephen, Friedlander said, the city is holding the financial disbursement to the church until next week while it revises its budget to reflect the cost of running a day shelter.

The city’s other nonprofit partners received their first payments this week. Friedlander also reported that the city has spent about 25 percent of the surplus money budgeted for the emergency services. He said most of that went into facility improvements and hiring more staff.

Coalition for the Homeless Executive Director Natalie Harris said the 2019 Homeless Street Count is proof the city’s plan is helping the homeless. | Photo courtesy of Harris

The budget committee meeting came a day after the 2019 Homeless Street Count, which looks at who the homeless are and where they are sleeping. Harris said the street count provided proof that the city’s initiative is already having an impact on the streets of Louisville.

The coalition found 118 individuals sleeping outside as opposed to 178 in 2018. There were also 161 individuals sleeping inside the newly created low-barrier homeless shelter at Wayside Christian Mission on East Jefferson, Harris said some of them were people who had never utilized a shelter before.

This information will be invaluable, she said, not only to the Coalition but to a University of Louisville research team that is studying the city’s housing needs.

“I think it is fortuitous that the city and the Metro Council did this at this point. It is all coming together at a good time seeing that the city also allocated money to UofL to look at what is the need in the community. Without what the city has done their report would have been just theoretical,” Harris added.

Committee member Scott Reed, R-16, asked Harris how many of the homeless people counted were actually from Louisville, and she said about 25 percent of them came from outside the city.

“We ask each person, ‘Where was your last Zip code residence?’ so we are able to track where people came from,” Harris said. “The majority of people come from Louisville, the surrounding area or somewhere in Kentucky. But we do have a situation, where there is a community that sends homeless people to Louisville, or we go and get people and bring them to Louisville.”

Insider has previously reported on a client exchange that has gone on for several years between the Healing Place and a similar facility in Richmond, Va. At the time, Jay Davidson, the executive director of the Healing Place, said the client exchange was a regular practice for rehab facilities but that it had slowed down in recent years.

Friedlander said it is not unusual for the homeless population of a city to be from outside the community.

“If you know the substance abuse world there is an 80 percent failure rate in the best places. The positive way to look at this is that Louisville is known as a city where you can get treatment for substance abuse. So, if somebody comes to Louisville to get substance abuse treatment, there is probably an 80 percent chance they will fail. If they fail, they are going to end up on our streets,” Friedlander added.

A homeless encampment under the I-264 overpass on Jefferson Street. | Photo by Michael L. Jones

Reed said that the information made him question whether the plan, which is supposed to end with the fiscal year on June 30, was actually addressing the root causes of the city’s homeless problem.

“We’ve allocated this money, I want to make sure we’re using it the best way that we can use it. This was ostentatiously emergency money. It’s supposed to be, just by derivation, a one-off. That’s not to say the city won’t be having this conversation next year. I don’t know, I hope we don’t,” Reed added.

Councilwoman Paula McCraney (D-7) said she has concerns about the way the money has been allocated, but she feels that the implementation of the plan has gone as well as could be expected.

“I am very impressed with the fact that we can move as fast as we moved with this money and with the programs that are set up,” she said. “While not perfect, it is a good start and it’s a great start out of the gate. I’m always impressed with anybody who cares for the least the lost and the left behind.”

Michael L. Jones

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.