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Louisville's Low-Barrier Shelter Helps, But Some Homeless Still Face Cold Nights

On one of the coldest mornings of the season, dozens of volunteers spread out across Louisville to determine how many of their fellow citizens were sleeping on the streets. They canvassed beneath overpasses, around closed schools and open gas stations, and in quiet wooded areas that would normally be good places to tuck away.

Between 4 to 6 a.m. on Thursday morning, volunteers gripping hand-warmers to protect against single-digit temperatures found relatively few homeless people outside. That was true at least near the YMCA Safe Place, close to the Kentucky Kingdom theme park.

Still, one young couple huddled inside a tent near the organization’s Youth Development Center building. They didn’t have to, but they unzipped the tent, exposing themselves to bitter cold as a surveyor crouched on the snowy ground, questionnaire in hand.

At 25 and 20, the two are known to employees of the YMCA Safe Place, said Corbin Hannah, the group’s youth development coordinator. They promised to finish up the paperwork and check in with the couple later Thursday.

Hannah said this was the coldest homeless count they could remember. It took place as Louisville and other parts of the country face record or near-record cold.

In a preliminary analysis of the morning's count released late Thursday afternoon, the Coalition for the Homeless said that 118 people were counted sleeping outside. That's compared to last January when volunteers counted 153 homeless people on the streets, and another 784 in shelters, according to the coalition.

Final figures from the event will be submitted to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which provides funding for homeless support services.

Recent efforts including a low-barrier shelter temporarily supported by city funds have helped get more people off the street, community leaders say. But even in this cold weather, there are some sleeping outside.

"I know that there’s an organization, Fed With Faith, has been going around really trying to make sure that -- since it’s been so cold -- people who are on the streets have a tent, so that’s really helpful," Hannah said. "And I also know the Coalition for the Homeless got some coats that turn into sleeping bags."

Those supplies are needed, even as a low-barrier shelter run by Wayside Christian Mission takes in about 150 people a night. According to the coalition's preliminary figures, 161 people were counted at the shelter Thursday morning.

Giving Credit To Low-Barrier Shelters

Natalie Harris, executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless, was positive as volunteer teams returned to Hotel Louisville for a hot meal after the early-morning count.

"From what I understand, the results so far of the count have gone really well. What I’m most excited about is that most of the teams that are coming back have not found people," she said.

She credited outreach efforts by the city and advocacy groups for the seeming lack of people on the streets. But she said the low-barrier shelter, which takes in everyone including those on substances or with pets, has helped, too.

In fact, Harris said the low-barrier shelter has succeeded in getting more people inside at night than Operation White Flag, a city-funded program through which shelters open their doors to almost everyone. That might mean it's time to review White Flag funding and see if more money should be put toward low-barrier shelters, she said.

Councilman Bill Hollander, of District 9, was a leader in shifting more than half a million dollars in surplus city funding to provide shelter and services to Louisville’s homeless population. He joined the early morning count on Thursday.

Before heading out, Hollander said the low-barrier shelter has helped protect people from the frigid weather.

“People who’ve been barred for one reason or another do have places where they can go now," he said. "It’s a process and we’re better off now than we were last year at this time and we need to keep being better off every year.”

Members of the Metro Council budget committee and other city officials will meet Thursday afternoon at City Hall for an update on the low-barrier shelter and other city-funded efforts.

Though the worst of the cold weather may be over, the Coalition's Harris said people in Louisville must continue looking out for the homeless. In fact, she said sending out volunteers out in the dark and bitter cold turned out better than expected.

"I kind of like the idea of having the street count happen the coldest day of the year, because it is like 300 extra eyes out on the city streets looking out for people that need somebody to look out for them," she said.

This story has been updated. 

Amina Elahi is LPM's City Editor. Email Amina at aelahi@lpm.org.