In the past six weeks, Jennifer Clark has noticed that the atmosphere in and around the St. Vincent de Paul Ozanam Inn men’s shelter is less tense than it used to be. And, more of the men who use the shelter are finding jobs and permanent housing.
She believes the difference lies in a major change implemented Sept. 1. The shelter eliminated check-in and check-out protocols, which required the men to leave the premises with their belongings for part of each day.
The shelter is now open 24 hours a day and allows the men to come and go as needed. They can also leave their belongings in lockers at the shelter.
“I think that that’s part of it — not having to worry about checking in at 3 in the afternoon,” Clark, chief operating officer, said in an interview Monday. “That’s kind of the middle of your day.”
The changes made in September are part of St. Vincent de Paul’s broader effort to help the city’s homeless population get back on their feet, said Clark.
“When you make someone’s life easier by taking away barriers like check-in and check-out, which we got rid of, and put in place more services, it gets easier for them to achieve their goals,” Clark said. “So they’re going to go to (permanent) housing more often and more quickly.”
Since July, Ozanam Inn has served 126 men. The rate of shelter residents who find housing has risen. Before implementing the changes on Sept. 1, 14% of men found permanent housing. Less than six weeks later that number was up to 22%.
Natalie Harris, director of Louisville nonprofit Coalition for the Homeless, said the change is more humane and “much better for the person.”
When emergency shelters stay open during the day and offer non-congregate beds, homeless individuals “can really focus on what to do next,” Harris said.
Ozanam Inn still uses congregate beds, but has set aside 10 of its 50 beds for non-congregate sleeping. The shelter calls them sanctuary beds and they’re reserved for individuals who have special circumstances — such as physical or mental health issues or substance use.
The sanctuary beds, created about two years ago, come with “really intensive services,” Clark said, including meetings with the mental health and substance use team and case management staff.
The investment in these sanctuary beds seems to have borne fruit, Clark said.
“What we found was that twice as many of the men who were in those beds went to (independent) housing compared to the rest of the overnight population,” she said.
St. Vincent de Paul participates in Louisville Metro Government’s homeless and housing initiatives that examine “why people are still sleeping on the streets and in places not meant for human habitation and how do we work out that issue and bring people in,” Clark said.
Ozanam Inn applied for and received funding from one of the initiatives to make the changes needed to stay open all the time, such as hiring additional staff members.
“Once you have people in the building 24/7, you need services 24/7 to keep everybody safe and healthy, you need a higher staff-to-client ratio,” Clark said.
“We staffed up — instead of one program aide at the front desk to assist people we have two now which is really important for safety and security.”
The society is also hiring a second-shift clinical coordinator.
“That person will be doing groups at night and different activities and will be there for mental health and substance abuse crises,” Clark said.
Clark added that the agency works to serve the person who “has a little bit extra going on that makes it just a little bit harder for them to do what they need to do. And when they come here, they get the support they need to be able to get back on track to get housing.”