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As city ramps up encampment clearings, advocates say unsheltered residents need more help

A person crouches outside a tent where people are living. There is snow on the ground.
Amina Elahi
Advocates say residents displaced when the city clears encampments need more support.

With five months remaining this fiscal year, there have been 28 city-ordered encampment clearings — and counting. There were only five the year before.

In recent years, Louisville Metro has funded organizations that provide services, efforts to increase outreach as well as programs and projects aimed at getting people into more stable and permanent housing. But advocates say they don’t provide enough support to mitigate the homelessness crisis, but instead serve as Band-Aids.

Christina Folsom used to be unsheltered and said it took years for her to overcome the systemic barriers to transitioning from living outdoors to permanent housing. She said an integral but missing piece is proper guidance.

“They gave me a voucher and they dropped me. Nobody interacted with me. I didn't know where to go. I didn't know what to do to look for an apartment, or any of that. I almost had a mental breakdown,” Folsom said. “Some people need more help than others, because the mental stuff, also if you have health issues.”

In Louisville, 10,640 residents were homeless in 2021, according to an annual census conducted by the Coalition for the Homeless. That’s a 41% increase since 2018.

Data from the census also showed that in 2021, 3,724 people were not in the shelter system or lacked indoor accommodations, compared to about 75 in 2018.

While unsheltered encampments are scattered throughout Louisville Metro, data from Metro Government and resident calls to Metro 311 show that, from July 1, 2021 to July 15, 2022, they were most concentrated in the downtown and south central parts of the city.

Camp clearings and lacking support

Local ordinance requires city officials to assess camps for possible health or safety risks to determine whether or not to move forward with clearings. The city notifies residents it will clear the camp in 21 days. However, the state of Kentucky and private property owners aren’t mandated to extend that courtesy to encampment residents.

Between July 2021 and June 2022, Louisville Metro carried out five encampment clearings. That number doesn’t include clearings ordered by the state or those taking place on private property. Since last July, the number of city-initiated camp clearings drastically increased to 28.

According to Julia Dake, a spokesperson for Louisville Metro’s Office of Resilience and Community Services, the city spent $187,574.40 on camp clearings last fiscal year, at an average cost of $7,815.60 per clearing. The city has not disclosed how much it’s spent on this fiscal year’s 28 clearings, but if the costs match the year before, the figure would be close to $219,000.

Each time the city issues a 21-day notice of an encampment clearing, people who live there are offered a temporary hotel stay and the option of receiving services such as needs assessments, as well as connection to health care, housing resources and other social services. But advocates argue that falls short of helping people in the long run.

Donny Greene runs FeedLouisville, the local nonprofit that oversees the city program that places some displaced residents in hotels for nine days.

“If you allow camps to exist and shelter in place, people are better off,” Greene said. “It's easier for them to keep the services [they’ve already accessed], it's easier for them to get to appointments, it's easier for them to get to resources, because resources know where they're located. So I don't consider [camp clearings], and I've never considered [camp clearings] a good idea.”

Greene said the nine-day hotel stays are not enough to support people in navigating the long, barrier-laden process to more stable housing. He said people are often left to figure it out on their own.

“Everyone needs IDs to get into housing, everyone needs IDs to do anything. That alone is a huge barrier. Because it takes weeks to get IDs,” Greene said. “Once you decide to clear a camp, that person should be put in temporary shelter, and walked through the process to get permanent supportive housing every time.”

Folsom, who was formerly unsheltered, reluctantly accepted a hotel stay after the encampment she was living in was cleared. She said it was difficult to adapt to living in temporary shelter.

“I was used to being on the street so I had a hard time even adjusting to being in a hotel. After two days of me being in that hotel, I was wanting to run back out,” Folsom said. “There should be wraparound services to help people and motivate them to move through the program to get [to permanent housing].”

Louisville Metro conducted a case study of how 76 unsheltered residents fared after a camp clearing last October. It tracked both people who rejected and those who accepted services and temporary hotel stays, and looked at whether they made any progress in securing stable housing.

The case study showed two people were moved into housing before the clearing and only 34 residents were relocated to hotels. It also showed that none of the encampment residents who stayed at hotels were moved directly into housing after their stays. On the contrary, a majority of them, 21, ended up back on the streets and just 13 people received housing vouchers.

Folsom said getting into more stable housing was even harder than the transition off the street and into the hotel program. She got a housing voucher and had limited time to use it. Folsom said no one told her where to look for housing or what to do after she got it. She was left to fend for herself.

“There needs to be leeway when it comes to a homeless person coming off the streets to an apartment,” Folsom said. “I went through almost two evictions since I've been housed, and so, not just leaving them at that apartment like that, because you got to adjust. It's a big adjustment period to being indoor. I had to deal with way less on the streets than I do in housing. And I shouldn't feel that way.”

Greene with FeedLouisville said by working with the city his organization is trying to reduce the harm caused by encampment clearings.

“Our goal has been to try to remove as many of those barriers as we can, while still working within the existing system, because that's the only way we currently have to get folks qualified to get them into housing. Because we don't live in a society where housing is a human right,” Greene said.

Aside from the city’s hotel program, he operates a privately-funded hotel effort. Greene said he aims to strip the barriers to permanent supportive housing by helping people every step of the way: transitioning off the streets, connecting with necessary resources and services, securing housing or vouchers and checking in with people even after they’re housed.

“I currently have probably about 200 people off the street and working with folks to move them to permanent supportive housing of some kind,” Greene said.

Rigid curfews, being separated from partners and turning people currently using substances away are some common deterrents and disqualifying factors for temporary shelter.

Greene said, unlike other shelters, his privately-funded hotel effort has few requirements and, instead of penalizing people who struggle with addiction and substance use, he and his staff strive to connect them with the resources they need and are ready for.

“We are a harm reductionist model, you do not have to be abstinent to be here, the only thing you have to have is your voucher referral to public housing, and a referral from your caseworker,” Greene said.

Once unsheltered residents have those referrals, they’re placed on a waitlist for a room. Once they get a room, they’re paired with care coordinators and caseworkers who help them through the process of finding housing — and continue to check in on them after they’re housed.

Other services and resources

Since 2021, Louisville Metro Government has funded certain projects aimed at mitigating the homelessness crisis.

The money allowed some shelters to create more low-barrier or less communal accommodations. It also supports temporary hotel stays and the wraparound services, like connection to resources and meals, that come with them. Other resources the money helped fund include legal aid assistance, as well as rental housing costs and new home necessities for some families.

During the city’s Homelessness Task Force meeting late last month, Lora Haynes, an assistant professor at the University of Louisville and member of the body, said the funding was also meant to ramp up outreach, staffing and scope of services available to residents who are unsheltered.

“Connection for those individuals to additional resources, accompanying individuals in navigating the housing process, providing transportation to things like medical and mental health appointments,” Haynes said.

Last month, the nonprofit Voices of America Mid-States launched a city-funded effort that aims to reach unsheltered residents.

The mobile outreach van aims to connect with people living on the streets, assess their long and short-term needs and help them access the proper resources for health care, social services, shelter and more.

However, the project’s funding from Metro Council was restricted to areas outside the Watterson Expressway and away from the city’s urban core, where encampments are most concentrated. Tamara Reiff, senior director of housing services for VOA Mid-States said the goal is to do a better job reaching unsheltered residents in more suburban and rural parts of Louisville.

“There were homeless populations in those areas who just didn't know or were unaware of what resources and services may be available to them,” Reiff said.

She added the organization hasn’t determined yet where the van will be located Mondays through Wednesdays. Reiff said, in the meantime, the outreach team will work in the field on those days. She said VOA will announce once locations are secured on Facebook and Instagram.

The VOA’s outreach van will be stationed at Voices of Truth Church on Thursdays and Fairdale Christian Church on Fridays from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

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