By Glenn Rutherford, Record Editor Emeritus
There is good news to report on the city’s homeless front.
Last week the Coalition for the Homeless, and the agencies that work with it, noted that the latest census of the city’s homeless population showed a decline.
That’s right — a decline.
The good news came in the coalition’s 2014 Louisville Homeless Census and it indicated that, according to a news release from the agency, “the overall number of homeless people in our city has dropped and that shelter bed usage has increased.”
Specifically, the 2014 census showed that there had been 8,608 homeless people in Louisville Metro in 2013, but last year that number fell to 7,380. It represents a decrease of 14 percent, and it has made those who work with area homeless and homeless agencies happy to know that the city’s numbers are moving in the right direction.
“We’re comfortable that our numbers are true and accurate,” said Natalie Harris, executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless.
The drop in homelessness comes as a result of a couple of things, she said.
“First, agencies involved with the homeless population agreed that we could more accurately track and keep tabs on the population if we had ‘a single point of entry’ into the system,” she explained.
That means that all the agencies agree to keep what amounts to a universal list of people being served throughout the city, regardless of the agency providing the service.
“That gives us a true figure when it comes to the census,” she noted. “And now our numbers have improved because we’ve found housing for chronic homeless people and for veterans.”
Because of the “single point of entry,” she explained, those who have been homeless for the longest, “and who have had the most difficult times and have been in our system for the longest” get the first chance at housing.
It is the availability of housing that is providing a direct reduction in the homeless population, she said.
“All the agencies have agreed to take the person at the top of the list,” Harris explained, “and that’s really changed, and made more effective, the way we serve the homeless population.”
Now agencies coordinate to get the chronic homeless into permanent housing, and they’re also able to more efficiently get the homeless population to other agencies for the services they need.
Couple the new system with a commitment by Louisville Metro Mayor Greg Fischer to provide housing for every homeless veteran in the city by the end of the year and you have a recipe for the declining numbers.
Make no mistake. Despite the success shown by the latest census, the problem is far from solved. Both Harris and Maria Price, executive director of the St. John Center for homeless men were quick to note that.
“The situation has turned around a little and that makes us all feel good,” Price said. “But there’s still a lot to be done.”
The success, she believes, has come because the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Veterans’ Administration (VA) and other agencies “have gotten serious about finding permanent housing for homeless populations,” she said.
In 2010, Price noted, the VA committed, along with HUD, to finding housing for homeless veterans — “and veterans make up a significant portion of our population,” she added. But those numbers are improving, too.
“In 2011, 29 percent of our clients were vets,” she said. “Now that figure is 19 percent, and this is the difference that comes when a community and government make a commitment to finding housing for a specific homeless population.”
Despite the success, “now is not the time to retreat,” Price added. “We’ve shown that this really does work; we just need more housing.”
Harris couldn’t agree more.
“What if we targeted another group?” she wondered aloud. “What if we said, ‘Okay, in addition to veterans, let’s set a goal of having a place to live for every homeless child in our community?’ Think of what that might accomplish.”
It is, of course, a daunting task, the agency leaders noted.
“We need more housing, pure and simple,” Harris said. “Right now we have 360 homeless veterans in the city and so far we’ve found housing for 115 of them and that’s wonderful. It looks as if we may well meet the mayor’s goal. But at the same time, we have a waiting list of 17,000 names for Section 8 (federal HUD financed) housing.”
That’s how big the problem is, Harris and Price noted. But they’re also happy to report that at least they’re making progress.