Homlessness, we cannot care just at Christmas

Dec 13, 2017 at 10:33 am

As the temperature struggled to reach 30 degrees last Friday morning in Louisville, police and the Department of Public Works showed up to a homeless encampment ready to move people out — six officers for three homeless people who moved along without struggle. Protesters were there and also people to help the men move their belongings.

Compassionate Louisville strikes again.

It is time for Louisville to stop calling itself a compassionate city when Mayor Greg Fischer and the Metro Council continue to act counter to that.

Just fucking stop. We don’t believe you.

In recent months, as the city has continued to build giant, new luxury apartment, boutique hotels, stadiums and whatever other money-sucking black hole they can stain the city with, Louisville’s population of homeless individuals are being pushed farther and farther away from the services they desperately need to exist.

But we’re compassionate, y’all.

During Friday’s camp “clean-up,” a city official told Courier Journal, “Illegal encampments can be a health hazard and have no place on public property given the available shelters.”

I don’t know which “official” made this comment, but I’d like them to issue an immediate apology to the people of Louisville, because it is simply asinine.

Let’s talk about the shelters. There are 365 beds that typically are full, and the Coalition for the Homeless count is that there are 156 people on the street. The count, which is an imperfect and usually under-reports, according to other agencies, is taken on one of the coldest nights of the year. That means: All beds were taken and, yet, people were still outside. So sure, let’s talk about all of those available beds.

There are simply not enough shelter beds for people who need them. On top of that, some people will never go to a shelter.

What is the solution?

I hope that one city “official” reads this:

Fed with Faith Donations Coordinator Mick Parsons told me, “I guess this is the point in which I’m supposed to say that it would be great if homelessness was no longer a problem; but I don’t see that as realistic. And just providing housing is not enough.”

“It’s about those soft skills, transitioning to that kind of life. It’s very challenging.”

“I guess what I would like to see happen with the city is to have a more thoughtful, integrated and organized, compassionate response,” said Parsons.

At least one city official, Louisville Metro Councilman Bill Hollander is making an attempt, a proposed ordinance: If a homeless encampment is scheduled for removal, or “cleanup,” then a notice will be posted allowing 21 days for individuals in the encampment to move. With that, the Coalition for the Homeless would be notified twice: once when the notices are posted and again three days before with exact removal dates and times, so that the organization can notify social services agencies to be on site for assistance during the cleanup.

Hollander’s proposal also would allow for the preservation of identifiable personal belongings for up to 30 days in the event of an emergency cleanup due to health hazard or other stated emergency.

Hollander realizes that his proposal is not a remedy.

“I would never want anyone to say that this ordinance solved the issue,” he said.

“There is no question that when a homeless person is displaced from an encampment, many of them are going to end up in another encampment, and we know that. The way to address that is to have more shelter beds and ultimately more affordable housing.”

The problem is that many homeless individuals are in no way equipped to live inside. Their skills are honed for street survival.

“Once they get this person in a home,” said Parsons when thinking about placement of homeless individuals in housing without support services. “They consider this person no longer homeless. The problem is, they don’t always have the soft skills to live in an apartment. All the skills they have are focused on street survival. They know how to survive.”

“What we do when people get into housing. We help them find furniture. Help connect them with services and we also provide a food box once a week for six months to help them transition from being homeless to having a home and at that point access whatever resources they need.”

It’s good that these organizations exist because these things are integral to transitioning from the street to housing.

Hollander also acknowledges that just placing people in an apartment doesn’t address the myriad of support services it takes to survive the transition from homeless to housed.

“What we’re talking about is not just housing, but we’re talking about supportive services with affordable housing. In many cases we need supportive services,” said Hollander.

The ordinance is “a humane way to deal with people’s belongings when these displacements happen.”

While that is something, it isn’t enough, and Hollander is aware of that.

“I think we should explore all options. I’ve had discussions since this issue arose, in the last couple of weeks, with various people from the Coalition and from the administration about how we should address these issues,” he said.

One model that Louisville might emulate is Seattle’s. That city’s solution may sound outrageous to some, but it is getting results in keeping people connected to support services.

Seattle has allowed six city-sanctioned encampments for individuals who are living on the streets. The city has also seen no significant uptick of crime in areas where sanctioned encampments have opened.

Each of these encampments is self-governing with residents expected to cooperate and contribute. Each camp has some parameters set by the city, access to case management and other support services. So far, according to the “Permitted Encampment Evaluation” report from June 2017, the model is working in Seattle. It is providing security for those people who are still on the streets.

When I mentioned this to Hollander, he repeated that the city should look at all options. “For a variety of reasons we know that not everybody is going be able to move into an affordable apartment even if we had them,” he said. “I’m glad that there’s attention to the issue. I think that’s very important.”

Attention is important and as the weather gets colder and the holidays approach, many of us turn our attention to our homeless neighbors; but the problem is a yearlong one. With New Albany’s proposal to destroy affordable housing and Louisville moving people around without a real solution, we must do more.

We cannot care just at Christmas. People need places to live all the time, even if those places don’t fit our genteel sensibilities about doors, windows and rooftops. If Seattle has a model that works and helps, let Louisville do something similar.

Seattle isn’t the only city taking a radical approach to what housing and shelter means. Hollander is right. We should explore all options and the citizens of Louisville should follow up and demand that the issue be addressed in a way that proves Louisville is a Compassionate City. •