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Homeless Advocates Find Hope In Surge Of First-Time Street Count Volunteers

Before dawn on Thursday, Clea Grubb and her friend Jamie Bush, an outreach worker for St. John Center for Homeless Men, joined hundreds of others to canvass Louisville streets seeking out people spending the night outside. They were volunteers with the annual homeless street count that federal officials use to allocate funding to cities across the country.

Around 5 a.m., they spotted two people walking near the abandoned buildings of the Beecher Terrace housing complex, the ones that are yet to be torn down.

Grubb asked them questions, like their names, their health and substance use histories and where they stay.

"Where are you sleeping tonight?" she asked.

"We're not," said Aaron Price, who has been experiencing homelessness with his brother Clinton for about a year.

There were more questions on the standard survey volunteers across the city logged Thursday morning. This year, for the first time, they used smartphones rather than paper to collect the results. The data will go the the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Grubb asked whether the brothers have pets. Aaron said yes, a pitbull. Clinton reminded him of their cat.

"Can't forget Sophie," Aaron said.

Bush, who regularly works with people experiencing homelessness, said he hopes his friend and other new volunteers will take what they learned during the count and teach their friends and family so that they can care for individuals, and also try to address systemic issues in Louisville.

"When it’s bills and legislation and political parties talking about what they want to help and who they want to help, (I hope they’ll recognize) that this is all relevant and that it’s people that are out here and it’s not just a problem," he said.

He said if housed people thought of people experiencing homelessness as their neighbors, they could serve them better.

Natalie Harris, the executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless, said about half of the 400 volunteers were first-timers. To her, that’s good news because it means more people will have a better understanding of what it’s like to sleep outside.

And, with that information, she said they might be inspired to act.

"We've done more this year than ever in the past of trying to get people to sign up to contact their state legislator or their council member or to do something else that is going to allow them to get involved after this one night," Harris said.

That continues to be an important issue as Louisville lawmakers face challenging budget questions in the face of a pension bill that will increase again this summer. Harris said Metro Council members are thinking about homelessness in that context.

"We have been saying over and over again it will require more money, we've got to have more beds, especially if we're going to address families with children who are in need," she said.

After the count, Harris guessed volunteers would tally more people on the street than last year, when temperatures were in the single digits. She was right; the initial count from Thursday was 139 people. In 2019, volunteers encountered 118 people sleeping on Louisville streets.

This story has been updated.

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

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