Preliminary results from counts conducted last week show an uptick in homeless populations in both Louisville and Lexington.
Volunteers found 156 unsheltered homeless individuals in the River City, up from 112 in 2016’s count. In Lexington, there were 41 unsheltered homeless people, which is nearly double the number recorded the year before. Totals from both cities will be finalized in coming weeks as surveys of homeless people living in community shelters are tabulated.
On KET’s Connections, host Renee Shaw discussed issues of homelessness with Natalie Harris, executive director of Louisville’s Coalition for the Homeless, and Charlie Lanter, director of Lexington’s Office of Homelessness Prevention and Intervention.
Social workers, advocates for the homeless, and volunteers fan out across the nation to conduct the annual count. The Point-in-Time census seeks to quantify those living on streets and in shelters.
But who actually qualifies as homeless depends on whose definition you use. Lanter explains that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the agency that provides federal funding to fight homelessness, says someone is homeless if they’ve lived outside or in a shelter for a year or more.
On the other hand the U.S. Department of Education expands on that definition to include youth who live in transitional accommodations such as Salvation Army housing or who “couch surf” with friends or relatives.
“Those people ironically wouldn’t even be eligible for HUD assistance because they don’t fit the HUD definition,” says Lanter. “These are the games we have to play when we’re dealing with federal funding; our office’s job is to try to cut through that.”
Homelessness in Lexington has been trending downward in recent years, according to Lanter. He says the total number of sheltered and unsheltered individuals was 1,064 last year. He says that was a 26 percent decrease from the 2014 homeless census.
The Louisville Coalition for the Homeless, a nonprofit advocacy group that represents some 30 agencies that work with the homeless, reported 1,116 homeless people in their 2016 Point-in-Time count. That was down from 1,466 in 2015.
In both communities the number of individuals and families living in shelters comprise the greatest portion of the total homeless count. Both agencies say they closely monitor these statistics so they can track demographic changes to the homeless population and determine how to allocate resources to best help dislocated individuals and families.
An Increase in Youth Homelessness
Lanter and Harris say the homeless can include those with mental health issues or suffering from drug or alcohol addiction; military veterans who’ve had difficulty reentering civilian life; low-income families struggling to make ends meet; or young adults who have aged out of the foster care system and have no real place to go.
In fact, the fastest growing segment of the homeless population is 18 – 24 year olds. Younger children are also impacted by homelessness as well. For example, the number of homeless students in Fayette County schools jumped 92 percent from the 2012-2013 school year to the 2014-2015 academic year.
“We need the child to be able to worry about learning and growing and being a kid,” says Lanter, “and not worrying about where they’re going to sleep tomorrow and what’s for dinner, if anything.”
Lanter adds that he hopes more federal funds will be devoted to addressing student and youth homelessness.
A 2013 report from the Louisville Homeless Coalition showed more than 10,000 Jefferson County public school students were counted as homeless in the previous two years. Harris says her group saw youth numbers start to rise when the recession hit in 2007- 2008.
Another factor is the epidemic of heroin and prescription opioid abuse. Children who are abandoned by a parent with an addiction may end up in state care or staying with relatives. Harris says in Louisville alone, more than 6,000 children live with a grandparent because their parents are no longer in the picture.
“Kentucky has the largest number of kids in foster care now than ever in history,” Harris says, “and a lot of those kids, it’s because of drugs that their parents are involved in.”
She says Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer has several initiatives focusing on so-called disconnected youth (those who are not in school and are not working). Harris says the city has expanded its summer works program. They’ve also created a REimage initiative that will give 18 to 24-year-olds who are facing misdemeanor criminal charges a second chance to continue their education or get a job.
A Lack of Affordable Housing
Youth and adults may also find themselves homeless because they don’t earn enough income to be able to afford a place to live.
“Over half of them are employed but they’re in jobs [where they’re] making minimum wage or maybe $8.50 an hour, and they have kids and they’re trying to make ends meet,” Harris says. “They just can’t figure out what to do when their car breaks down or there’s a hospital bill or some unexpected expense.”
That’s why Lanter says it’s important not to assume that a street panhandler is homeless. He says they may be soliciting handouts to help make a rent payment that month. Or they could actually be homeless and have an income, but can’t get a place to live because they don’t have enough money to pay the rent as well as the security deposit and other fees a new renter may be charged. Plus he says a person or family who has been evicted from their home or apartment will likely have a harder time getting new housing even though they are the very people who need it the most.
Lexington’s Office of Homelessness Prevention and Intervention has launched a program to help homeless wage earners get back into housing. Lanter says his agency will pay the security deposit and first month’s rent if the individual can prove they have the income to sustain monthly rental payments. In the first six months alone, that program moved upwards of 40 individuals and families into their own place to live. And they did it for a modest investment of about $10,000, says Lanter.
Affordable housing availability is an issue that homeless advocates in both Louisville and Lexington are working to address. Harris says a safe, sanitary, and affordable home is crucial to everyone’s well-being. Her coalition provided subsidies that allowed more than 1,000 homeless veterans get a place to live.
Lanter says Lexington’s homelessness office tries to work with developers to ensure that urban renewal projects include housing units that would be affordable to those people already living in those neighborhoods and to homeless people who have nowhere else to go.