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Louisville Shelter Use Surges on These Cold Nights, but Homeless Numbers on Decline

When the temperature drops as it has this week, local shelters are crowded with homeless men and women.

With freezing temps on the horizon, shelters such as the Wayside Christian Mission, the Salvation Army and St. Vincent de Paul have declared "Operation White Flag" nights in which they open their doors for everyone in need—regardless of bed space.

“They may not have a bed, they may just be sleeping on a cot on the floor,” said Natalie Harris, the executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless.

The National Weather Service forecasts overnight lows below freezing in Louisville for the next several days; an Operation White Flag night occurs when temperatures dip below 35 degrees.

These shelters are almost always at capacity, Harris said. And a White Flag Night brings about 240 additional people in from the cold. There are about 650 emergency shelter beds around the city.

“They have to have extra towels, extra laundry, extra food, extra staff,” Harris said.  “There’s definitely a loss to the shelter for each additional person they serve.”

The shelters spend about $25 per individual they serve each of these nights, about $16 more than the cost on a warmer night, Harris said.  The city gives about $5 per person to the shelters, she noted.

Though these shelters are often brimming with people, the homeless population overall is declining, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Since 2010, the homeless population in Kentucky has dropped about 23 percent, according to HUD's 2014 annual homeless report to Congress, which released earlier this month.  To determine these numbers, HUD conducts a one-night tally of homeless men, women and children across the country.

The most recent count determined that about 5,000 Kentuckians were homeless.  Nationally, more than 578,000 people are homeless on a given night, according to the report.

Harris, of the Coalition for the Homeless, said the declining numbers are especially evident among veterans and chronically homeless individuals.  Still, the number of homeless families has remained constant, she added.

There are currently more than 50 families in Jefferson County waiting for placement in a shelter.

“That means that there are families sleeping in cars or maybe even sleeping outside while they’re waiting to get in to a shelter,” she said.

The number of homeless families has remained constant because national and local programs tend to focus more on the populations that have a higher cost to the system, like veterans and chronically homeless individuals, Harris said. She believes the most effective methods for combating homelessness are housing vouchers and subsidies and boosting wages.

“Right now, even if you are working, you would need to make $14 an hour in order to be able to afford a two-bedroom apartment,” she said.

Federal programs likeOpening Doors look to end homelessness among veterans by 2015 and chronic homelessness among individuals by 2016.  It aims to quash homelessness among children and families by 2020.

Local officials and residents took to Twitter on Thursday to raise awareness of homelessness in Louisville.  Using #TakeAStandLou people were able to show their support for ending homelessness.

Here are some photos from Twitter.


Jacob Ryan joined LPM in 2014. Ryan is originally from Eddyville, Kentucky. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.