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For Louisville's Homeless, a Cold and Snowy Night Means Scrambling For Food and a Bed

It was about noon on Wednesday and Kenneth Williams hadn't eaten breakfast. In fact, he hasn't eaten since Tuesday afternoon--a peanut butter sandwich.

Williams is homeless. Has been for about three months this time. He said he lost his apartment when he had to spend six months in jail for not paying a fine. Nowadays, he spends his nights in a shelter at the Salvation Army and his days trying to find something to eat.

For Williams, finding food in Louisville is never easy. It's even tougher with snow on the ground and freezing temperatures, like the ones that have gripped the city this week.

"Since the snow hit, everything is shut down," he said, meaning the churches and shelters that usually have food don't.

But on this day, the St. John Center on Muhammad Ali Boulevard will have food. So Williams and a small group of men walk that way.

When they get there, at the corner of Muhammad Ali and Clay Street in downtown Louisville, about 60 men are already there. The center only accepts men, said Maria Price, executive director of the center. Women, she said, are accepted at other places, like Louisville Rescue Mission.

Price said it's "pretty typical" for this many men to come to the center during the day.

The men are welcome to come and stay from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., Price said. It's warm in the center. A television plays in one corner and the coffee pot is always full.

And today there is food. So Williams and his group shuffle inside to get a plate.

But it won't be enough.

"There are too many people," he said.

He will go back into the cold still a bit hungry. Others at the center may not get anything to eat.

About 80 percent of the men at the center will stay at a shelter tonight, Price said. The other 20 percent will stay at an encampment or maybe in a car.

Since the weather is below 35 degrees, Wednesday night will be a White Flag night, which means no one is turned away from a shelter.

But that also creates problems.

Williams said the shelters can get "overcrowded."

He said White Flag nights at Wayside Christian Mission can get "off the chain."

"It's like they are at home over there," he said. "They drink, fight, whatever."

And Bradley Wallace agrees. He said Wayside is a rough place to be on a White Flag night. He stays there during the night after spending his day at the St. Joseph Center.

"It's rough," he said. "Everybody is arguing with everybody and you have to sleep on mats in a gymnasium just right beside each other."

Shelters also face issues regarding funding—especially on bitterly cold nights.

White Flag nights bring nearly 300 more people into shelters than other nights, said Natalie Harris, executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless. There are about 650 emergency shelter beds in the city.

When more people come to a shelter the cost of service also goes up.

Normally, it costs shelters about $25 to serve an individual a night. On White Flag nights it costs about $16 more than that.

Local shelters have already used up all the funding provided by the city this year for White Flag nights, Harris said. Now, they are "operating solely on donations." (Donations can be made here.)

Williams knows that the donations help provide the food, blankets and showers at shelters he relies on.

And he knows that the shelters need more donations, too. He said he understands that making a donation isn't always easy because, financially, times can be tough.

But, he said, it's also tough to live without a home. It's tough to jockey for a bed every night when losing out means sleeping on benches and porches.

"But you learn to deal with it," he said.

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.