In search of Louisville’s homeless: We joined the Coalition for the Homeless on their quest to find answers and solutions

Neil lives in a small, dark blue tent about 100 yards from the entrance to the Big Four Bridge.

In his 50s, Neil is surrounded by two smaller tents, plus a couple of makeshift tents created with tarps. A small camping stove sits on the ground a few feet away from where he has been sleeping. He now sits, talking to a group of strangers just before 5 o’clock on a Thursday morning. It is 28 degrees, and each person in the small group of street count volunteers for the Coalition for the Homeless is bundled in layers.

Neil is shirtless.

Susanne Binford, a Seven Counties Services representative and Street Count veteran, asks Neil a series of questions. How long has Neil been at this camp?

“About two weeks,” he says after a pause.

Binford asks how long he’s been homeless.

Another pause, and then, “Since about May.”

“Neil may have simply lost his job,” Binford says later, noting that he speaks intelligently and confidently. Sometimes bad things happen to good people, she reasons. It rains on the just as well as the unjust.

Once per year, the Coalition for the Homeless floods the streets with volunteers for two hours at 4 a.m. in an attempt to identify how many homeless people are sleeping outdoors — the goal is not just to collect data, but to find recently homeless Louisvillians and ultimately try to help them find food, shelter or even a new life.

On this chilly morning, hundreds of these volunteers venture out in search of Louisville’s homeless — especially those who need the many services available around the city and haven’t yet found them.

Dress appropriately

When my girlfriend Cynthia and I request to be added to a Street Count team, I wrongly expect to be walking around downtown looking behind dumpsters and under viaducts.

“We’ll be going into wooded areas,” Binford tells us the night before. “Dress appropriately.”

Binford, along with her husband Nolan Nelson and another volunteer named John Harris, initially take us, along with a LEO Weekly photographer, to a wooded area near Champions Park. We walk into the area which is a well-known spot for homeless camps, Binford leading the way. We walk in quite a ways, but find almost nothing.

“They’ve cleared a lot of the trees,” Binford observes, suggesting there isn’t enough cover for people to camp. She notes that this area had long been a popular site for homeless groups until a story in the media brought attention to the spot a few years ago.

We move in a little deeper and find another area that might have been the site of a camp at some point — a shoe, a water bottle. But a little deeper into the woods and across a muddy bog, we discover a camp with a medium-sized blue or possibly gray tent. Binford leads, along with Nelson, and approaches the camp saying, “Good morning!” and asking, “Is anyone home?”

Volunteers are instructed to always call ahead because, well, no one wants to wake up in the middle of the night with strange people standing over them. To help avoid this scenario, word is put out to shelters and missions that the Street Count is coming, so that people living on the streets will be prepared to see us. But there is no response to Binford’s calls. As we move into the camp, we see a couple of dog dishes, filled with wet leaves.

“Do you have a puppy dog?” Binford calls.

The ground is littered with empty food containers. Rubbermaid containers with drawers still appear to contain some personal belongings. I see a toboggan on the ground, and a backpack; a pepper container. Discarded feminine hygiene products tell us there was at least one female here. Beyond some trees are two more, smaller red and gray tents, so we approach.

Binford and Nelson call out, but again there is no response. Binford says the camp appears to have been abandoned within the last week, maybe two, which would roughly coincide with a recent snowfall. The tents are soaked. Everything is.

“When the tents get wet, that’s it,” Binford says. “Rain is terrible [for homeless people]. It’s even worse when it rains and it’s cold.”

As we retreat, I walk past the dark blue tent, of which the flap is open, revealing several soaked blankets left behind. A few malt liquor cans litter the area just behind it. This tent appears to have served as a “gathering place,” as Binford terms it, which at first surprises me. But homeless people living in groups is common, she says.

“We very rarely see people by themselves,” Binford explains. “It’s not safe.”

Where are the former inhabitants now? There is no telling. Hopefully, Binford says, they have found better shelter. We move on.

A record volunteer turnout

The Coalition for the Homeless got its start in 1984 as an effort by local government and a pair of associate priests from Cathedral of the Assumption and Christ Church Cathedral. The organization not only looks for ways to help homeless people in Louisville find food, shelter and services, but seeks to end homelessness in the city completely. No small task.

One thing the Coalition does relentlessly is track Louisville’s homeless — tracking can lead to assistance in the future, and that’s part of what the Street Count is about. When we spoke with Neil, Binford asked several questions to help create a profile so the Coalition can track his progress. Happy endings aren’t as rare as one might think, thanks in part to volunteers — 280 turned out at 4 a.m. for this year’s count, a new record — and government funds.

But for every happy ending is the beginning of another tough-luck story, it seems. As Binford noted about Neil, sometimes a person simply is living a week-to-week lifestyle on a low wage, and then loses a job or has some other financial hardship that puts them in a position of not being able to pay rent. And once a person is displaced and living on the streets, getting back to where they had been suddenly is much more difficult.

In fact, Binford, whose title is Team Leader for Assertive Community Treatment at Seven Counties Services Inc., was technically homeless once. When she moved here a number of years ago from New York, she stayed with her father for a few weeks.

“Essentially, that made me homeless, but I had resources,” she says. That’s the difference between sleeping in a family member’s guest room and sleeping in a tent.

This year’s count yielded 112 individuals sleeping outdoors: 14 women, 94 men and four people whose sex is not known. This is an increase over last year’s total of 71, but it bears noting that last year there were 50 fewer volunteers, which obviously can make a difference.

“We think this could have been because the weather was milder,” meaning fewer people left their camps than normal, Coalition Director of Development Catherine McGenney wrote to volunteers in reporting the count numbers. “We also had more volunteers, which means you were able to cover more ground and potentially find more people.”

The full scope of the homeless in Louisville currently won’t be known until shelter counts are tallied, which is still a couple of weeks away.

But there is evidence of improvement, at least in terms of Louisville’s homeless veterans. In November, the Coalition for the Homeless announced that, thanks to its Rx: Housing Veterans initiative, led by Mayor Greg Fischer along with more than a dozen local partner organizations, Louisville had reached “functional zero” for veterans. What that means, according to a statement on the Coalition’s website, is that “first, all identified homeless veterans have access to permanent housing, and second, that we have implemented a system with dedicated resources to ensure newly homeless veterans find housing within 30 days.”

The Coalition announced at the time that at that point, more than 600 veterans had been placed in permanent or transitional housing, and more than 180 have a housing plan.

But there is still more to do. Binford estimates that at any point in time, there are around 1,500 people homeless in Louisville; over a year’s time, that total number may reach 9,000 total. Most, like Neil, are temporarily homeless — they’ve lost their jobs, they’ve been unable to afford housing, et cetera. Of those who are chronically homeless, Binford estimates between 50 and 65 percent experience some form of mental illness, which makes their path more difficult than simply finding a new job or catching a couple of breaks.

With the goal of zero homelessness a fairly unrealistic one, Binford believes looking at the number of chronic homeless people is important to gauge success in what organizations like the Coalition for the Homeless and Seven Counties are doing.

“I think what encourages me is when you look at numbers, the economy fluctuates,” she explains. “Sometimes we’ll see a whole lot of people be homeless in a year. I think what really speaks to me is people who are chronically homeless … when that number decreases, that speaks to me that our services or resources are getting better.”

The Street Count is a starting point.

Right under our noses

Walking along a train track at 5 a.m. can be a creepy experience. There isn’t much sound other than the footsteps of your group walking in the gravel. Soon, we reach a bridge that appears to cross Beargrass Creek, although, in the darkness of the morning, I can’t say that for sure. As we approach the bridge, I announce that we’re about to re-enact a scene from the film “Stand By Me.” This is when Binford detours off the tracks and down a steep slope toward the creek.

I follow closely behind her, nearly losing my footing twice in the rocks, weeds and bushes, but manage to avoid falling and taking Binford into the creek with me.

“This is where Greg used to live,” she tells me as we descend. “It’s the perfect spot. Greg’s a smart guy.”

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“Where is Greg now?” I ask.

“He is in permanent housing now.”

Figuring another smart person with no place to go might have scouted out spots along the river and under the train and road trestles, she leads us along the creek, but we find no one. It’s a good spot, she tells us, in part because the water runs off the slope and into the creek if it rains. Of course, the downside is that if it rains enough, the creek rises, and then it’s suddenly a terrible spot.

We climb back up to the tracks. Soon, we are making our way west to a wooded area not far from the Big Four Bridge. This is when we encounter Neil’s camp, which is actually in a section of land next to Interstate 71 — on which thousands of people drive by daily on their way to work or school, or to pick up their kids — where several homeless camps and former camps are scattered.

As we approach Neil’s tents, I can’t help but look over my shoulder to see Doc’s Cantina, the former Tumbleweed, just across the street. We are near enough to the big, often-used parking lot across River Road from the restaurant to probably throw a rock and hit it. It is often a bustling area, and Neil sleeps in a small just over a hill and behind some trees. The clarity is eye-opening, yet confusing.

I can’t help but think that one day soon, someone will be enjoying a night out at Doc’s, complaining to the bartender that there isn’t enough salt on the rim of their margarita, while Neil sleeps shirtless a virtual shouting distance away. It is proof that there are people living right under our noses, without official addresses, everywhere we go — and we all know it, but just so often choose not to think about it.

As we gather around Neil’s tent and Binford asks him questions, I look around. One tent in his area is using an old sign announcing a youth gospel revival or conference as a makeshift doormat, apparently to avoid the mud. The sign reads, in part, “See yourself in a new light.”

Binford asks Neil if he has a cell phone, and he responds that he does. She asks for his number.

“I have no idea,” he tells her.

Just down the way, we approach a small tent with a small metal sign leaning against it, a sign that can be purchased at most any hardware or department store. The black sign, with red letters, exclaims, “No Trespassing.”

Binford greets the occupant inside, who refuses to answer her questions. He also refuses to accept a bag of food and other items Harris has been carrying. Turned away, Binford asks him, “Is there anything we can do for you?”

“You can go away,” he responds.

We will find out from Neil a few minutes later that the man is named Dave, he is in his 30s, and that he has been homeless for several years. As we go past the camp looking for more people, Binford tries one more time to offer Dave the bag. This time he accepts, presumably after hearing our conversation with Neil. He then offers a word of advice: “There’s nobody else down there.”

Hung with care

We press on anyway. Not far away, we locate the remnants of yet another camp. Personal items are strewn about, as if the people who camped here left in a hurry, possibly due to the snow. I see a whole pumpkin lying next to a small bench. A plastic seat cushion with a Louisville Redbirds logo on it. We find a number of books and magazines, from National Geographic to Tom Clancy’s “Support and Defend” to a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. A few feet away, I see another book and ask Cynthia to shine her flashlight on it. The inscription on the black, leather-bound book reads, “Holy Bible.”

A few more steps along, we see in some weeds a box that once held a Star Wars toy. It is possible that whoever camped here last had a child with them. I hear cars passing intermittently on I-71.

As the morning wears on, and 5:30 a.m. approaches, we turn back east along the Interstate, passing under a billboard that reads, “Get Your Life Back.” My body is actually sweating thanks to the 5,500 or so steps we’ve walked and layers of clothing, yet I can’t feel my feet from the cold. I keep thinking about Neil being shirtless in his tent.

“We got off lucky,” Harris says as we again walk along the railroad track. “In my five years [of being a Street Count volunteer], this is by far the warmest.”

We veer into another heavily wooded area, only to be cut off by fencing. Nelson finds a pathway around, so we backtrack and follow him into yet another camp, this one going deeper into the woods.

As we approach along a path, stepping over a large log, the first thing we encounter is a trash pile about 15 feet in diameter piled probably two or even three feet high in spots; some of the garbage is in black bags, some of it is loose.

Maybe 50 feet ahead is a large gray and red tent, with a shade canopy sitting adjacent to create a sort of faux front porch.

“That’s a nice one,” Binford says as she approaches.

Inside, we hear a television or radio; someone is monitoring what sounds like a news broadcast.

“Hello?” Binford says. “We’re with the Street Count. Can I ask you a few questions?” She pleads with the occupant or occupants repeatedly, but there is no answer — only the muted sounds of some talking head coming through a small speaker.

Nearby is a smaller, dark-colored tent; hung on makeshift clothesline between two trees next to it are what appear to be women’s dresses or skirts that look like they’re from the 1940s — they remind me of the bland, floral-pattern dresses my great-grandmother always wore. They are possibly hand made.

We call out greetings, but no one responds. Nearby is a small, dark green, pup tent. She calls into that one as well, but gets no answer.

“Is there someone inside?” I ask Binford.

“Yes,” she says. “I heard someone move.” She then points to a pair of men’s boots on the ground just outside the zippered tent flap. “I hope you stay safe,” she tells the person inside. “Stay nice and warm, OK?”

We move on.

As we make our way through the camp, calling greetings that will forever go ignored, we see bike wheels and candles. Binford and Nelson continue calling out greetings that dissipate into the night almost as quickly as they are uttered.

Soon, we come across a sight that seems out of place and is, as a result, touching and almost heartbreaking. Hanging from a wire clothes hanger in a tree, next to a tent, is a lone, hooded purple jacket. Emblazoned on the back in stitched lettering, it reads, “Vikings.”

There are clothing and personal items strewn about here and there, but someone has taken great pains to carefully hang up this coat — which he or she ironically is not wearing on a 28-degree morning. The jacket is slightly faded and careworn, but at some point this was probably a $100 coat. Was it purchased by this person in a former life when times weren’t tough and watching NFL football every Sunday was taken for granted, and so is now treasured as a link to that past life? Or is it simply a coat that has been scavenged or donated? We’ll never know, but the image of the hooded and layered jacket, which is officially licensed by the professional sports league that is now considered America’s pastime, is humbling. Even disturbing.

And truth be told, in that camp, I feel more like a trespasser than at any point during our excursion. Seeing the dresses, the Vikings coat, the boots and hearing the news broadcast inside the otherwise silent tent, yet getting no response to our greetings, feels very much like home invasion. I feel as I have walked right into someone’s house and begun looking through their closets. Suddenly, I understand Dave’s “No Trespassing” sign, which had seemed so ironic and needless just a few minutes earlier.

It is 5:45 a.m. now. As we depart the way we came in, the talking head inside the large tent still rambling in monotone, I can only wonder how the people inside these tents feel about our presence. Perhaps their lack of response is my answer.

Reflection

Back at the downtown meet-up spot, volunteers are treated to a hot breakfast. The banquet room at Hotel Louisville on First Street is buzzing with volunteers who are cold and who’ve had very little sleep. Our group ends up at a table together, but after the fact I can’t really recall now what the discussion centers around. Football, perhaps. But not necessarily homelessness.

Nelson, Binford and Harris are veterans of the Street Counts, so they have seen nothing this morning they haven’t seen before. Cynthia and I, not to mention LEO Weekly photographer Ed Neary, have been first-timers on this excursion. I think we may have still been in shock at this point, because even weeks later as I recall my experience, look through notes my chilled fingers had scribbled out in a small notebook, and type them out, it all somehow seems like a far-away dream.

And when I return home that morning and go back to bed, I feel a strange mix of appreciation and guilt about that warm bed and the big, thick comforter that embraces me. Later that morning, with Cynthia and I both working from home, I emerge from my morning nap to greet what looks on the surface like just another Thursday. Life, for people like me, simply goes on. Cynthia sits on the couch, banging away at her laptop, preparing for a conference call. I myself have a telephone interview to conduct shortly because there is a deadline to meet.

Cynthia wishes me good morning, and I say, “I had the strangest dream.”

“Really?” she says.

“Yeah,” I reply. “I dreamed we were hiking through the woods looking for homeless people.”

Sometimes a scary dream is right under our noses when we don’t even realize it. •

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