The real state of homeless shelters

Jun 2, 2010 at 5:00 am

I would like to clear up several misconceptions created by the May 19, 2010 guest commentary co-written by John I. Gilderbloom, professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Urban Neighborhoods at the University of Louisville, and Chuck Burke, president of the Original Highlands Neighborhood Association.

First, I think it is important to share that the “Louisville Homeless Task Force” they mention was a body called the Homeless Shelter Land Use Task Force created and staffed by Louisville Metro Government to amend the Land Development Code to address land use regulations for homeless shelters. The task force met for five months with a third-party facilitation firm. Their members included service providers, homebuilders, downtown development representatives, neighborhoods, government representatives, community leaders, academics, attorneys and local citizens.

After months of hard work and public comment, the Homeless Shelter Land Use Task Force created three new categories for use designation in the land development code: community service facilities, homeless shelters and transitional housing. They also created density limitations for congregate homeless facilities that are not addressed through the existing code. Finally, they avoided getting caught up in the politics of the recent controversy involving the placement of a new Wayside Christian Mission facility for families, and instead created special standards for all homeless facilities regardless of size, design and neighborhood. These standards include oversight of homeless facilities through the existing Quality Assurance Standards administered by the Coalition for the Homeless and a recommendation for Metro Government to incorporate this system into their licensing of all homeless facilities.

The Quality Assurance Standards (QAS) were created in Louisville more than 20 years ago. In fact, Louisville is one of only a handful of cities in the country with quality standards versus minimum standards for shelters. These standards include all of the items Gilderbloom and Burke recommended, including sanitary inspections, client satisfaction surveys, appropriate background checks, minimum staff qualifications, appropriate services, weapons and drug controls, communicable disease controls, financial controls, and provision of adequate cleaning supplies, food and clothing. While all shelters receiving funds through Metro government must meet QAS standards and be monitored annually by Metro staff, the Homeless Shelter Land Use Task Force is recommending that for the first time this monitoring be expanded to also include homeless facilities that do not receive funding from city government.

Gilderbloom and Burke also state that a historic neighborhood is being forced to accept an unregulated shelter with 700 beds. The Homeless Shelter Land Use Task Force does not require any community to accept any particular shelter facility and recommends that no shelters be unregulated. Instead, the task force has developed density limitations for congregate facilities based completely on the unit limitations of the existing zoning for properties. This allows homeless facilities to be placed in any community as long as they are appropriate to the existing zoning designation and meet the special standards for homeless facilities.

While the writers are correct that a homeless person was not included on the Homeless Shelter Land Use Task Force, neighborhood representatives, an attorney familiar with housing, and a University of Louisville professor with expertise were included. Additionally, a hearing and opportunity for written comment were provided in April for all interested parties. What they neglect to mention is that several original members named to the task force — including Gilderbloom, the Original Highlands Neighborhood Association, and the Coalition for the Homeless — were removed from service due to a conflict of interest caused by an outstanding lawsuit associated with Wayside Christian Mission’s proposed placement of a shelter for women and children at Mercy Academy in the Original Highlands, a plan that was abandoned last year in the midst of a heated controversy. Gilderbloom also neglects to mention that he owns property in that neighborhood, as does Burke. These conflicts, however, did not preclude them from attending the meetings or submitting comments to the task force or Metro Council.

In short, I completely agree with their assessment that it is important to regulate and ensure safety in our local shelter system. However, I would encourage those interested in doing so to review and support the Homeless Shelter Land Use Task Force recommendations.


Natalie Harris is executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless.