By JENNIFER OLADIPO
It’s the last Thursday in January, a clear winter day, slightly warmer than the one before. But by sunset, about the time Louisville and cities nationwide begin counting their homeless citizens, the air has taken on a harshness that will last until morning.
With temperatures set to drop to 25 degrees, tonight is a “white flag” night, when already-full shelters offer space on the floor or a chair, protection from the elements but little more.
The white flags might help make Louisville’s homeless count — a federally mandated biennial tally of people sleeping outside or in sheltering facilities — more efficient. The local Coalition for the Homeless organizes the count here, and will report findings to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The goal is to get a snapshot of Louisville’s homeless population in a short time span, from 6 to 9 p.m. tonight, precisely. The results will inform HUD policy decisions, important matters such as how funding is allocated.
Three hours hardly seems sufficient for such a task, to essentially justify the need for funding. On my way to one of two distribution sites where people who are homeless can pick up basic personal items, I ponder the efficacy of such a count. Cold weather may mean more people than usual find shelter in facilities or with friends and family who normally do not let them stay. And there are other complications.
“It is almost a definite that we’ll be underreporting,” says Mary Frances Shafer, director of community coordination at the Coalition for the Homeless. She acknowledges that the count will miss hundreds of people who might stay in a different home from one month to the next.
Moreover, Eddy Thomas, head of the street outreach team at Seven Counties Mental Health Services, says Louisville has at least 50 homeless camps and perhaps two or three times that number. That’s far too many to count for the two small teams surveying the homeless outside tonight. For example, he says, they typically engage about 500 people in camps located throughout the city, including the affluent East End. Thomas says homeless people with some income might gravitate toward a nicer residential area that is safer and less crowded, desires not so different from anyone else’s.
I know I’m near the distribution center when I see people with bulging white garbage bags. I round a corner to find a steady stream of men and women emerging from the basement of Jefferson Street Baptist Center. They fan out in all directions. A few pause to talk. On my way in, I pass a man delivering an agitated soliloquy to himself, his face twisted in anger. Though he looks at me, he’s obviously not speaking to me. I can only make out a few words. I hear “damn homeless” a couple of times.
He is the only such person I encounter tonight. The rest, it seems, are shockingly normal. The long line of people filing around the corners of the corridor and into the basement is overwhelmingly male. Other than that, in terms of race, age, ability and disability, it could be a line at a gas station or grocery store or a crowd at Thunder Over Louisville.
Apparently, I fit right in.
“Are you sleeping in or out tonight?” a volunteer asks me, wanting to know whether to give me a white or orange sticker to wear. At the moment, people wearing orange stickers — those who will sleep outside — outnumber those wearing white.
Caught off-guard, I stutter. “No, uh … I’m, uh … looking for somebody.” I’m slightly embarrassed by my subconscious assumption that I would “stick out.”
Other volunteers stand behind tables, calling out socks and underwear sizes like auctioneers and holding out packages. As supplies run out, vouchers are issued so people can get what they need next week. Others are seated, conducting surveys. I’m surprised to see people moving through so quickly, despite the cozy warmth down here. I join some men chatting at a table, residents of the center. One man, who asks that I refer to him in print as “Wise Guy,” says assumptions, especially regarding the homeless, are ill advised.
“Just when you think you know it all, it twists,” Wise Guy says, then gestures toward the throng circulating in and out. “That’s what you see in here, a life that twists. Like your life.”
At some point, everybody working with homelessness realizes, “This can happen to me.” Mental illness and substance abuse are major factors. But a layoff or divorce can quickly push even a previously stable life into homelessness.
“I don’t know. It just seems like I just can’t get ahead,” says Bryant Payton, a 35-year-old homeless man.
Activity at the distribution center has abated, and I am walking west on Market Street with Payton. Not a tall man, he lugs his white trash bag, stuffed until it’s almost as big as he is. It is the only sign that this young-looking, casually dressed man is not hurrying to catch up with friends or a date at Fourth Street Live. He’s not wearing any stickers.
Payton offers to stop so I can take notes more easily, but I decline, saying I don’t want to slow him down. That’s true, but I also fear standing still in below-freezing winds. My bare hands already hurt, and will soon be nearly numb.
Homeless for about a year now, Bryant seems untroubled by the stinging cold and the cars that whiz by within inches as we walk in the street where the sidewalk is closed for construction. He says frankly, “I’m homeless due to drugs and crack cocaine use.” It sounds as if he has repeated the sentence many times. He shakes his head as if in disbelief when describing life before homelessness. He says he holds degrees in business management and computer programming, and that he was a homeowner and a supervisor at a duct tape manufacturing plant. He struggles to keep faith that God will help him.
“If I could get a job, I believe I could get my life back on track,” he says resolutely. “I just talked to a guy at Lost Sheep Ministries and there’s a job. I’m supposed to call him on Monday.”
We part ways at Wayside Christian Mission, where Payton is meeting a group of people who will spend the night in an Old Louisville camp. Although the night’s white flag designation means he could probably sleep indoors, Bryant chooses the streets tonight.
“I don’t sleep on mats anymore. I stayed on a mat in a shelter when I had a cut on my head, and I caught a staph infection,” he says, pointing to a bumpy scar above his right temple.
As he dashes into Wayside, I ponder how many others avoid homeless services for various reasons. It also occurs to me that everyone hurried out of the warm basement to claim their spots for the night, maybe in shelters, a park or a ramp that delivery trucks will use tomorrow morning.
The streets have mostly cleared, so I head home. I’ve missed my bus, and the next one is an hour away, so I call a friend who offers to pick me up. To warm up, I keep walking until I come upon a man sitting at a bus stop, white plastic bag tucked beside him. He, too, has just missed a bus. He’s visibly dejected when I check the schedules on my cell phone and tell him his wait will be a long one. We talk and shiver together for several minutes, until I spot my friend’s car.
I suddenly get a slightly better understanding of something about homelessness. This man could have been one of the more than 11,000 people served in Metro area homeless shelters in 2005, the most recent year for which those statistics are available. But there isn’t much difference between him and me. Neither of us can get where we are going of our own accord. But I have a phone and a friend to call — two simple resources that seem to make all the difference tonight.
A final figure from last week’s homeless count is expected within a few weeks. The 2005 count totaled 2,302 people: 190 sleeping in white flag beds, 2,017 in regular shelter beds, and 95 sleeping on the street.
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