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    Each day begins as a rough sketch. There are encampments to visit, a list of individuals to check up on. But in homeless outreach, those you assist become the compass, redirecting plans on the spot. So it goes on a cold Friday morning this fall. Christen “Tiny” Herron and Carrie Dorton, two outreach workers, stand outside the Lord’s Kitchen just south of the University of Louisville’s campus, talking with men and women who’ve come bundled in layers for a meal.

    Herron and Dorton pass out socks and bus passes, then remind a young man of an upcoming appointment with a caseworker who’s finding him housing. They agree on their next stop: a man living at a nearby abandoned property. But a young woman with dark hair tinted sapphire walks up in tears. She lifts a pink Mickey Mouse duffle bag to waist-height. “Let me see her,” Dorton says, tenderly.

    The woman, whose name we are not including, unzips the bag, pulls out a gray jacket and carefully scoops up a shivering Chihuahua-looking dog named Goldie. The dog’s legs are as thin and stiff as pencils. Her ribs look like gills as she struggles to breathe. This woman and her dog have been a pair for years. After the sudden death of the woman’s husband, Goldie pressed against her owner, giving relief from the loneliness and soft, eager love when their time on the streets turned violent.

    Maybe it’s cancer. Whatever it is, Goldie has not been eating, and her brown eyes strain, tired and pained. “This dog saved my life,” the woman whispers through sobs so heavy she’s gasping.

    “You’ve been a good mama to her,” Dorton says, rubbing the woman’s back.

    Goldie and her owner are now the morning’s priority.

     

    In early 2019, Dorton and Herron began their work as a homeless-outreach team in partnership with two day shelters: UP for Women and Children and St. John Center, which serves men. Their outreach is one of many efforts the city has funded in 2019 to assist with homelessness. While budget cuts decreased city funding to agencies like St. Vincent dePaul and the Healing Place, the city spent $1 million on homeless-outreach teams, additional shelter beds and a storage facility where homeless people can store valuables like important paperwork and dry clothing. (Last December, the city funneled $500,000 of surplus funds toward emergency shelters and other programs for homeless people.)

    Numbers show the homeless population has grown slightly in the last few years. The most recent Louisville Homeless Census reported services to nearly 7,000 individuals, up 4 percent from the previous year. Certain subgroups have significantly spiked. That same census showed a 17-percent increase from 2017 to 2018 of those experiencing homelessness due to domestic violence.

    What’s changed in recent years is the visibility of it all. As land has been cleared for waterfront development and a soccer stadium, well-hidden homeless camps have been forced to disperse, rattling a city now forced to see bodies cluttering sidewalks, even taking up entire blocks along Jefferson and Floyd streets. According to the Coalition for the Homeless, it’s estimated that anywhere from 150 to 250 adults sleep on the streets every night. Even during January’s polar vortex that produced sub-zero wind chills, 118 people spent the night outside.

    Herron, a longtime advocate for homeless people, started the Forgotten Louisville, a volunteer organization that feeds and befriends those living on the streets. She says the outreach efforts have managed to fill a gap. “We’re not just handing them a brochure and saying, ‘Here are some resources,’” she says. “We’re taking them to appointments. We’re following up with them.”

    On this day, she and Dorton will drive under I-64 near Portland to visit a camp with about 10 loosely clustered tents. They’ll urge a 60-year-old, who is in a wheelchair due to a staph infection following hip surgery, to complete a housing assessment that could help him get a housing voucher. They’ll load a wheelchair-bound 78-year-old into their car and transport him to an emergency shelter so he can avoid another 30-degree night. So far this year, the outreach team has served 755 people; about a third report having a mental illness, and nearly half have no income. Dorton and Herron have arranged thousands of services, from getting identification cards to helping folks access substance-abuse treatment and counseling.

    Herron says she and Dorton have found homeless communities that were largely unknown until this year, like the one just south of the University of Louisville, where Goldie and her owner live. Many here live in abandoned properties or sleep on porches, sometimes navigating the streets as a family. “It kind of struck me when I came out here — the single mothers in their 40s with their sons in their 20s,” Herron says. “A lot of this area is substance abuse, big-time.” Human trafficking and prostitution in this area are “horrific,” Herron says, women often getting abused, raped. Dorton, who once struggled with addiction and homelessness herself, adds, “You don’t know how much trauma I hear every day.”

     

    W​hile some homeless people “sleep out” due to addiction or their pets or not following shelter rules, there’s also simply not enough room. This past summer, a University of Louisville study funded by the city determined that “the number of shelter beds available can only accommodate 67 percent of the known people experiencing homelessness in Jefferson County.” When it comes to shelter space for families, there are only enough beds to serve 54 percent of the need. In mid-November there were nearly 80 families on the family shelter waitlist.

    While families tend to slip into spaces unnoticed, perhaps living in cars or with friends or spending the night in hospital lobbies, large encampments always draw attention. Twelve camps have been busted this year. (In 2018, Metro Council passed an ordinance mandating a 21-day notice before camps could be razed. But if a camp is on private property, that 21-day notice does not apply.) Herron says the clearing of camps downtown has only pushed homeless people into new spaces, like Okolona, Jeffersontown and Fern Creek. “Which is horrible, because all the services are (downtown) within blocks of each other,” she says.

    The U of L study urged city leaders to increase the number of beds in low-barrier shelters — emergency shelter with few rules. Pets are allowed. Couples can remain together. Someone can even come in high, though they can’t use drugs or alcohol on the premises. In September, the city obliged, allocating hundreds of thousands of dollars toward low-barrier shelter space at three locations, the largest being Wayside.

    On a recent evening, in Wayside’s former gym, 100 beds are full. They’ve been full every night since the low-barrier shelter opened on Christmas Eve last year. A red curtain divides the gym. On one side, men and women, pets who sleep in crates. On the other, a few families. With so many animals and people, inevitably, there’s a sour, musty smell. Fluorescent lights overhead never shut off completely due to surveillance cameras and guards that must keep watch. Instead, they dim at 11 p.m. “Eventually (the children) are able to settle down,” says Nina Moseley, CEO of Wayside Christian Mission, acknowledging it’s a grim setting for kids. That’s why her staff and Herron and Dorton try to relocate families quickly.

    That’s no easy task. “A lack of family shelters and affordable family housing units are among the most urgent dimensions of today’s local homelessness crisis,” the U of L study reports. Currently, the city is 30,000 units short of housing for households that earn $25,000 or less. Creating that much affordable housing would cost $3.5 billion. And available funding for such projects, be it in the form of grants, foundation dollars or federal money, is a challenge to secure. Six local agencies did receive $3.4 million in federal dollars this year, with the charge of housing and stabilizing homeless youth up to age 24.

    Herron has already identified young men and women who will receive housing vouchers and supportive services with that money. But, she says, for those who don’t qualify, the shuffling in and out of shelters, hotels and camps will likely continue. “Until there’s enough affordable housing, it’s not going to end,” she says.

     

    Goldie’s owner leans against Dorton’s Ford Escape. “I can’t go. I can’t do it,” she says, sobbing. Herron and Dorton have called My Dog Eats First, a nonprofit that helps care for homeless pets. They’ve agreed to cover the cost of Goldie’s euthanasia and cremation. The woman nuzzles her nose and cheek into the fur behind Goldie’s ear. Herron and Dorton are crying too. Goldie was part of their lives, often tagging along on outreach trips in the neighborhood. Herron’s phone is full of Goldie pictures. “I’m thankful I don’t get numb to this stuff,” Herron will say later, wiping away tears. “It’s tough; we go — bam, bam, bam, bam — to different situations. The burnout rate is so high doing this.”

    Over the next two hours, Dorton and Herron will take Goldie to a veterinarian, cradling her like a baby in the waiting room. It’s an odd twist to their day, but at least they know the woman trusts them. “It’s a big deal for her to hand us her animal,” Dorton says. They will stroke Goldie as a sedative sends her into twilight. They’ll hug and cry when the vet no longer detects life. With the dog gone, Goldie’s owner will feel deep loss. How will she fill that void? “I’m worried about her,” Dorton says. Herron nods. It’s Friday afternoon, but she’s on their list for Monday.

     

    This originally appeared in the December 2019 issue of Louisville MagazineRead 2019 from A to Z.

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    Photo by Chris Burgett

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