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Experts Say Changing Policies, Practices Can Help Louisville Better Address Homelessness

Homeless Camp Clearing by J. Tyler Franklin, Louisville Public Media-082943
Photo by J. Tyler Franklin

Clearing out homeless camps is one of Louisville’s most controversial practices. Officials say it can be needed for health or safety reasons. But some advocates question how it fits in with the city's principle of compassion.

A shift in how the city handles such camps, away from clear-outs in favor of providing services, is one of the eight recommendations a group that researched the issue for five months issued on Tuesday.

Another idea aims to address one of the main root causes of homelessness in Louisville: poverty. Experts suggest policy changes for this issue, including making it easier for people who have been in the criminal justice system to get jobs and housing, and to raise the minimum wage, which matches the federal rate of $7.25 an hour.

Louisville tried and failed to raise the minimum wage to $9 an hour in 2016.

Susan Buchino, an assistant professor at the University of Louisville's School of Public Health & Information Sciences, led the research. The city paid $50,000 to fund the project.

"On a given night, Louisville is home to at least 1,000 people experiencing homelessness," Buchino said at a news conference. "In 2018, nearly 7,000 people were recognized as requesting services for homelessness at some point throughout the year.”

She said many people experiencing homelessness in Louisville are employed full-time in low-wage jobs. And there are geographic differences in where homeless people are from.

"About half of Louisville’s homeless population reports that their last residence was in one of the 10 poorest ZIP codes in Jefferson County," she said. "For our segregated city, this means that homelessness disproportionately impacts African Americans.”

More details about the demographics and nuances of homelessness in Louisville were not available because representatives did not provide the study.

Louisville officials made some efforts to get people off the streets late last year by allocating more than half a million dollars to open a low-barrier emergency shelter and create storage for homeless people's belongings. Buchino said more shelter beds for families are needed, and the group's recommendations include offering more, smaller low-barrier shelters with appropriate staffing.

Buchino and other officials said another major piece of the problem is affordable housing, which is in short supply, particularly for Louisville's poorest residents.

Despite upcoming budget cuts, Mayor Greg Fischer wants to dedicate $1 million to homeless services in the next fiscal year, though he did not say how it should be allocated. Metro Council must approve that spending first. The legislative body will pass a final budget at the end of the month.

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