Editorial — Progress on homelessness

There is some good news to report about the homeless situation in Louisville.

Thanks to a lot of hard work by a great many people — such as those at the Coalition for the Homeless, the St. John Center for homeless men, Sister Visitor Center, Catholic Charities and a host of others — there are fewer people sleeping on the streets of the city each night.

And thanks to a couple of federal programs and the work of the local Veterans’ Administration, more and more people — especially veterans — who were once homeless are now living in permanent housing.

That’s good news to consider during the dark days of February, when the snow is flying and temperatures are dropping and we’re spending time dreaming of flowers, green grass and
warmer weather.

It’s good news that was helped along by the work of 166 volunteers who, last week, took to the streets of the city for its annual “census” of the homeless population. Those volunteers found just 70 people who — despite the bitter cold — were still spending their nights without shelter, or in make-shift huts of cardboard and such.

Natalie Harris, executive diretor of the Coalition for the Homeless, said the 166 volunteers were organized into 40 teams. “Our team found two folks who couldn’t complete the survey (questions that the homeless are asked to answer) because they were so mentally ill.”

And there is no doubt, said Harris and Maria Price, executive director of the St. John Center, that mental illness, drug and alcohol dependency lie at the heart of many homeless situations. But the story of this census is positive — it represents progress and cause for hope.

The census didn’t count the number of homeless individuals in shelters; those in temporary safety out of the weather may well return to the streets again. So the census isn’t saying that the problem of homelessness in Louisville is going away — we should remember that Jefferson County Schools report that among their student population, one in 12 is homeless.

But there has been progress, and that is news worth noting.

“Last year there was a huge decrease — about a 50 percent drop — in the number of homeless from previous years,” Harris said. “And we think that’s because of the housing voucher programs that the Veterans’ Administration is running and because of the permanent residential housing program that Maria (Price) at the St. John Center is doing.”

Those efforts are taking people off the streets, the two leaders said, and should be praised.

But those fighting homelessness in our city note that there are still two growing groups that need help — homeless families and young people between the ages of 18 and 24. “We just haven’t found the resources to get homeless families into permanent housing,” Harris said.

But Harris and Price, for the purpose of this editorial at least, concentrated on the good news the recent census uncovered, and they lavished praise on the VA’s continuing efforts to provide permanent housing vouchers — a federal program — for once homeless veterans.

The St. John Center for homeless men “still sees a full house every day,” Maria Price said. “But I know we’re on the right track with our permanent housing program.”

That effort is separate from the program administered by the Veterans’ Administration, but the premise is the same. The St. John Center’s social workers identify those men who are capable and willing to get their lives off the street and headed in the right direction. Then using federal grant money, they are able to provide permanent housing through the federal government’s Section 8 voucher program. And Price said St. John’s program is an effective effort that “continues to grow in scale.”

“Right now we have 55 men in the housing program (which is about a dozen years old now),” she said. “And our retention rate has been tremendous. About 98 percent of the men who’ve become part of the housing program are still in their housing — once they have a place of their own they don’t want to return to the streets.”

As a result of the St. John and VA programs, Price said, “I know there are more than 100 vets that used to be homeless who are now in permanent housing, thanks to the VA and their commitment to end veteran homelessness.”

There’s even more good news from the St. John Center. Price said the center’s board had approved a budget of $1.1 million, and that it looked as if the center was going to end the fiscal year about $30,000 in the red. But the Affordable Care Act has lowered the center’s insurance costs by about 50 percent she said, “and we may be able to make up that difference.”

At a time when Pope Francis is asking Catholics the world over to place added emphasis on caring for “the least of these,” the news from these two programs is cause for celebration — and hope.

Glenn Rutherford
Record Editor

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