It’s fall now, and the days have turned colder. At night it dips into the 40s, and like most people, I don’t have to compete for a safe spot to sleep, I don’t have to worry about staying warm and dry, about my belongings getting stolen in the middle of the night, or about getting woken up and made to move. I have a warm bed and an apartment to shelter in, a privilege that sadly not all Kentuckians share.
Homelessness in our communities is an issue easily overlooked, especially by people living in affluent and middle class neighborhoods. However, the reality of Kentucky’s homeless population is stark. The United States Council on Homelessness in January 2020 counted over 4,000 people who were homeless on any given day in the state of Kentucky. That Council also found that over the course of the 2018-2019 school year, more than 24,000 students experienced homelessness at some point.
Homelessness is often featured on television as a problem major cities fail to solve, but it also exists right here in our communities. Most people who experience homelessness couldn’t make rent, lost their job, or experienced another financial emergency. And while the majority of homeless people are not homeless for long, it’s horrific that anyone has to be homeless. It’s a traumatic and unsafe position to be in, and as we look towards another winter, another year, we cannot allow homelessness to persist.
Exacerbated By COVID-19
Even before the recent COVID-19 pandemic, the number of homeless people in Kentucky was increasing for years. The most common type of homelessness is temporary, and temporary homelessness is often brought on by sudden financial crises. Unfortunately, COVID created the perfect storm for financial crises, with unemployment soaring during the pandemic and millions of people getting sick. Experts predict that the ramifications of this will be increased homelessness.
This crisis is especially prominent in Louisville with our eviction rate being two times the national average. During the pandemic, Louisville evictions did not slow down to meet the needs of our community. Many evictions were concentrated in the West End and central neighborhoods. This increased housing insecurity left many people vulnerable to homelessness. On top of that, due to a lack of resources, COVID cases were particularly high among homeless people in Kentucky. Unfortunately, they were not given priority access to the vaccine despite their heightened vulnerability. One COVID precaution the state took was closing food pantries, so almost overnight, homeless people lost access to hot meals and nutritious food.
One positive aspect of the pandemic was that the community of Louisville came together to help its homeless population. Kerrigan Young, a volunteer at the nonprofit organization Feed Louisville, since its founding at the start of the pandemic, pointed out that, “it can be traumatic to sleep outside, especially for women. There is a lot of fear sleeping on the street, all of your belongings are exposed and you are incredibly vulnerable.” The nonprofit Feed Louisville really took off in March 2020, partly in response to food pantries closing, and in an interview with Kerrigan, she discussed how the pandemic opened people’s eyes to housing insecurity. While the numbers of homeless people increased, the community rallied to feed, house, and help those in need. Feed Louisville now has over 1000 volunteers, and in the last year has housed 50 people, most of whom were chronically homeless. Feed Louisville is also a proud partner of UofL, with UofL’s Alumni Club donating food to the organization.
Lack of Affordable Housing
Homelessness is a problem with an easy solution: putting people in houses. And this solution is by far the cheapest alternative to providing care for people without houses. The University of Louisville’s Kent School of Social Work conducted studies in 2004 and 2005 that determined homelessness cost the city of Louisville around $88,000,000. Much of that money was spent on correctional institutions, mental health services, and substance abuse services. The conclusion that the Coalition for the Homeless and many other advocacy organizations have come to is that the cheapest and most compassionate solution to alleviate homelessness is to put people in houses.
One of the best ways to alleviate homelessness is to provide affordable housing. The Department of Housing and Urban Development calculated that a fair market value for a two bedroom apartment in Louisville would be $694 a month including utilities. However, the average two bedroom apartment in Louisville goes for about $726 total. In order to afford that apartment, a minimum wage worker would have to work 77 hours a week. According to the Coalition for the Homeless, “Families living on… benefits and/or food stamps receive between $162 and $635 per month. Most of these individuals cannot even find an apartment where 100% of their income would cover rent and utilities. This does not take into account transportation, clothing, food, child care, medicine and other basic needs.”
About 25% of homeless people have a job, so unemployment is not the only cause of homelessness. Clearly there is a need for more affordable housing as prices continue to rise while wages stay stagnant. If you cannot afford a place to live on minimum wage, housing prices are too high and wages are too low. In the short term, shelters and other resources are good, but in order to solve frequent and chronic homelessness, affordable housing is necessary. This is especially true for young adults. Over half of homeless young adults have jobs, but many are unable to pay first and last month’s rent plus a security deposit. Others have children that make it even more difficult to make ends meet.
Once someone becomes homeless, obtaining and keeping a job can become extremely difficult. Many homeless people do not have all of their belongings. According to Kerrigan, many homeless people do not have access to their ID or Driver’s License, their birth certificate, or their Social Security information. It can be hard to prove citizenship and without proof of residence many jobs are unattainable. Without a car or a safe place to keep belongings, a job becomes more and more challenging to keep.
Affordable housing provides a safety net for unexpected expenses and financial crises. It would help alleviate homelessness and would save money. COVID is the perfect example of an unforeseen crisis that caused huge financial insecurity, ultimately resulting in an uptick in the number of homeless people across the country. Having affordable housing is one way to ensure that those types of situations in the future don’t result in homelessness for Kentuckians.
Respect for the Homeless
For various reasons, a lot of people don’t see the benefit of trying to help homeless people ‘who don’t want to be helped’. In America and especially in Louisville, many people have been desensitized to the realities that homeless people face, and may feel little sympathy for those facing mental health struggles and addiction. Marcus Stubbs, a writer for the Courier Journal who was once homeless himself, outlines a strategy for addressing the needs of the homeless community: notice, listen, learn, and engage. He advocates for treating homeless people like human beings, listening to their stories, learning about ways to help homeless people, and getting engaged in your community. Stubbs talks about how one of the most helpful people during the period of his life in which he experienced homelessness was his coach, simply because his coach saw him as human rather than homeless.
There is a lot of stigma surrounding being homeless and other stigmas surrounding mental health, addiction, and poverty. The first step to getting homeless people the help they need is to treat them like human beings. Too often homeless people are viewed as a blight on society, as though they are less than ‘hard-working’ people. This perpetuates negative and untrue stereotypes about how and why people become homeless. Those living on the streets are looked down upon, facing constant harassment. At worst, people jeer and make fun. At best, they throw some change in their direction or ignore homeless people altogether. Kerrigan from Feed Louisville observed that LMPD purposefully throws away the belongings of homeless people while they are asleep or if they leave the camp. LMPD clears homeless camps often, forcing homeless people to and start over.
There have been many policy proposals to eliminate homelessness, and I hope that this issue continues to be talked about. Homeless people have voices, and they can and do talk about their experiences, so it’s important that we listen to them. At the end of the day, the only way to solve chronic homelessness is to put people in houses. And the only way to solve frequent and temporary homelessness is to provide affordable housing. Homeless people are people, and they deserve to have their basic needs met. Mental health services and addiction recovery services are vital for the health of our communities, but first and foremost, housing is needed.
Photo by Jon Tyson