With shelters full, unhoused Louisvillians are at risk as a hot summer approaches
Louisville’s emergency shelters are full almost every night. As a hot summer approaches, unhoused residents and outreach workers are raising alarm about health risks for those living on the streets – which are only intensified by constant displacement.
On the evening of June 6, not a single shelter bed was available in all of Louisville.
Extremely limited availability is typical across the city’s network of homeless shelters, which provide about 750 year-round beds. Notices from the RAVE homeless services alert system show the city’s four emergency shelters have been nearly at capacity every night this week.
In mid-May, 24 families called the Coalition for the Homeless seeking shelter in the span of one week. 21 of those families reported they were sleeping in their cars, according to Catherine McGeeney, the nonprofit’s director of communications.
All of them were turned away. The city’s family shelters were full.
This comes as temperatures are beginning to rise with the start of summer. Climate change is making summers hotter, thus heightening health risks for unhoused Louisvillians.
Mary, who has been unhoused in Louisville for almost two years, said she’s worried about her health deteriorating when temperatures rise. She’s currently living at an encampment under an I-64 overpass.
Last summer, Mary, who declined to give her last name, stayed at the Wayside Christian Mission emergency shelter to escape the heat. She said she didn’t feel safe in the shelter – but if the heat gets too severe, she’ll try to access an emergency shelter again this summer.
“When it gets hot, I’m not gonna be able to breathe,” Mary said. “I have been applying for housing, so I’m hoping it’s gonna kick in before it gets real bad.”
White Flag days
Operation White Flag, a Metro Government program coordinated by the Coalition for the Homeless, goes into effect when Louisville’s heat index exceeds 95 degrees. Three of the city’s emergency shelters participate to offer additional shelter space:
- Wayside Christian Mission, 432 East Jefferson St.
- Salvation Army’s Center of Hope day shelter, 911 South Brook St.
- St. Vincent de Paul’s men’s shelter, 1034 South Jackson St.
Kevin Trager, press secretary for Mayor Craig Greenberg, said all eight Neighborhood Place locations will also open as cooling centers during extreme heat.
Kelly Hutchinson, executive director of development and community relations at Salvation Army, said the Center of Hope program typically has 142 emergency beds available for single men, women and young adults, plus 22 family emergency shelter apartments.
She said the day shelter, when utilized on a White Flag day, can comfortably accommodate about 60 more people.
“If it’s a White Flag situation, basically we bring people inside,” Hutchinson said. “We have a large gym. We have a day shelter. We have alternate spaces that we could try to make use of as needed.”
Jeff Gill, founder of street outreach organization Hip Hop Cares, works with unhoused Louisvillians on a daily basis. He said he supports the city’s Operation White Flag program, but he worries about those who still can’t access shelter, even with this additional space.
“Yes, it helps people, but what about the folks that can’t get in? What about the folks that are left out there?” Gill said. “We need more.”
Gill said he advises people to temporarily stay with friends or relatives during extreme weather, if they can.
Dehydration and heat exhaustion are major concerns, he said. For unhoused residents who can’t find a shelter or a friend to stay with, he tries to provide a tent, water, food and anything else they need to survive.
“There is a direct link between extreme heat and mental health, and the effects it has on those experiencing houselessness,” Gill said.
‘Disrupting and displacing people’
As summer approaches, there’s another issue on Gill’s mind this year: the frequency of encampment sweeps across the city, often carried out by Louisville Metro Police Department.
“What they’re doing right now, and what they’ve been doing since the start of the year, is daily – Monday through Friday – disrupting and displacing people,” Gill said.
Louisville’s Deputy Mayor of Public Health and Services Nicole George previously told LPM that affordable housing is a top priority – but she said clearing encampments is still a part of the administration’s strategy to tackle homelessness.
Gill said he’s observed an uptick in encampment sweeps since January, when Mayor Craig Greenberg took office. Forced displacement retraumatizes unhoused individuals who are already in crisis, he said, preventing them from feeling “any type of peace.”
Aoife Leonard, who has been unhoused in Louisville for four years, said she’s only been staying at the I-64 overpass encampment for two weeks. But authorities are already trying to displace the community there.
Leonard said she was kicked out of a park for getting water there. She was also forced out of the amphitheater by the KFC Yum Center ahead of a NCAA tournament.
“They need to leave us alone when we come to places like this,” Leonard said. “They’re shuttling us.”
Leonard is diabetic – she’s particularly concerned about negative health impacts from extreme heat. Staying healthy in hot conditions proves more difficult when dealing with constant displacement, she said.
A worsening crisis
Louisville needs at least 31,000 new units of affordable housing for the city's lowest-income residents, according to a 2019 housing needs assessment.
As rent prices skyrocket and with evictions back on the rise, homelessness in Louisville is becoming more prevalent. Outreach workers found a 139% increase in the number of unsheltered Louisvillians from January 2022 to 2023 – rising to an estimated 581 unsheltered residents in late January of this year, according to a point-in-time assessment.
Mayor Greenberg’s fiscal year 2024 budget proposal includes $15 million for the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund, as well as $2 million for small developer affordable housing preservation. But that won’t immediately help the hundreds of Louisvillians who face another scorching summer on the streets.
Trager, Greenberg’s press secretary, said some of the city’s nonprofits that serve people experiencing homelessness have “significant staffing shortages.”
“We encourage Louisvillians interested in giving back to the community to apply for these vacant positions to help the shelters increase their capacity,” Trager said.
The Coalition for the Homeless just started advocating for more shelter space last year as an immediate “band-aid,” McGeeney said.
“Shelter is a short-term fix to a long-term problem,” McGeeney said. “But things have gotten so bad here in terms of unhoused people who have nowhere to go – especially families – that we decided that we have to advocate for more shelter while the housing is being built.”
This story has been updated with additional information.