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    Before their room at the Hotel Louisville, before the night they spent sitting outside a downtown gas station with two toddlers and no place to go, before their 700-mile journey north to try to find shelter, only to discover a long waitlist — before all that, Samantha and Timothy (who did not want their last names in this story) pitched two tents under a bridge in Sopchoppy, Florida, a historic town not too far from Tallahassee, home to sun-seeking tourists and the Worm Gruntin’ Festival, a one-day hurrah that involves charming worms from the dirt to use as bait.

    Things had been going well for the family until last May, when Timothy lost his job as a cook. Unable to pay rent, eviction followed. Samantha’s mom was doubled up with another family and couldn’t take them in. No savings, no shelter space. So in late summer, Samantha, Timothy and their three children compressed life into two tents under a bridge on the bank of the Ochlockonee River. They liked the spot for fishing — never too buggy, bass and catfish populating the olive-green water. “If we had had fishing poles, it would’ve been all right,” Samantha says. “Like we were camping out.”

    Their three-year-old son, Timothy Jr. (called “Junior”), and their two-year-old son, Amare, along with Samantha’s nine-year-old son from a previous relationship, never complained too much. Junior loves playing in the dirt as it is. But it was uncomfortable. Knotted roots dented their bodies as they tried to sleep. That Gulf Coast heat, so persistent and droopy. Come dawn and just shy of dinnertime, cars would multiply above them, a loud and orderly brigade connecting work and home. They stayed under the bridge for two nights, then moved to Bristol, Florida, to camp in the woods.

    Sorting out their homelessness in Florida would have provided a familiar setting. Samantha was born near Miami in Homestead. Timothy’s a native Floridian too. But in early October, Hurricane Michael blew in, its 100-plus-mph winds leveling communities. The family watched the storm’s hissing rain and ruthless wind from a one-story motel. In the days after, homeless storm victims filled homeless shelters in the area. “We weren’t a priority anymore,” says Samantha, who is 27.

    Two-year-old Amare and his big brother, "Junior," stand with their parents.

    Timothy’s dad, who lives in Louisville, invited them up. Samantha’s sister offered a ride and her mother took custody of her nine-year-old. They arrived on Nov. 18, and the plan to stay with Timothy’s dad soon backfired. He lives in public housing, and occupancy rules forbade the family from staying indefinitely.

    One night in November, the family wound up downtown, trying to find a place to charge their phones. They were on the waitlist for a spot in a family shelter, and that list had 70 other families on it. They huddled outside the Thorntons at Broadway and First Street. The piercing cold was still a new sensation, how it stings bare skin and drains feeling from fingertips. A passerby spotted them, offered them a room for the night. But then what?

    As Samantha and her family walked around Louisville, she marveled at the row of men and women cocooned in sleeping bags and blankets beneath the overpass on Jefferson Street. “I never, never seen so many homeless people,” she says. That’s the crowd that’s easy to spot — adults unable (either due to lack of space or repeat rules violations) or unwilling to go into shelter. Families, they’re better at hiding, maybe in hospital lobbies or wedged into their cars for warmth. Mothers are resourceful, doing anything to keep their families together, haunted by the idea of Child Protective Services elbowing in if discovered.

    The Coalition for the Homeless in Louisville reported dips in homelessness from 2013 to 2016, but in 2017 the total number of homeless single men, single women and adults with kids slightly increased from 6,373 to 6,695. Homelessness, though, is hard to tally. Point-in-time counts, which take place on one designated night, capture those who happen to be in a shelter or are discovered in camps. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires any city that receives HUD funding to track folks who seek emergency shelter or report themselves as homeless, but some will always remain unaccounted for, preferring anonymity.

    In Louisville, over the course of a year, there can be anywhere from 150 to 300-plus families either in shelters or living in cars — or, sometimes, on the streets. Factor in families that are without a home but lodged on the couches of relatives or in motels, and the number soars. Jefferson County Public Schools reported close to 4,600 children during the 2017-2018 school year who didn’t have a permanent address to call home.

    Living on the streets is a last resort. Alone, it’s difficult. With children, it’s terrifying. Samantha worries that Junior, a spark of energy, will bolt into traffic. Then there was that November day when two women were following her family around. “I’d never seen them,” Samantha says. “I don’t know if they were out to rob us or kidnap our kids, but I wasn’t feeling it.” A few days after Thanksgiving, Samantha marched into the Coalition for the Homeless office in Old Louisville and exploded, demanding time with Natalie Harris, the Coalition’s executive director.

    Samantha didn’t get a meeting with Harris. She did wind up in the small office of Erin Klein and Tonia Nolden. The two women pieced together a plan, Klein collecting money from a few donors and working out a deal with Hotel Louisville downtown to house the family for a month for $800, a good rate considering a week at Hotel Louisville can cost about $400. (Wayside Christian Mission, a homeless shelter and service provider, also operates Hotel Louisville.) This month-long stay would buy time, a few weeks to gather critical things the family lacked, like birth certificates and IDs. Hopefully a shelter spot would soon free up. Before Klein and Nolden started their “prevention and diversion” program for families this past July, Samantha would’ve left the Coalition’s office with not much more than reassurance that she was still on the waitlist. Be patient, charge your phone. We’ll call you when there’s an opening. It may be weeks or months.


    Klein and Nolden’s office has peachy-pink walls, a wide gray filing cabinet and, lately, an oil diffuser misting out a lavender scent, or something just as soothing. Their desks sit side by side, facing a wall, with one long table in the middle positioned vertically, creating a “T” in the snug, windowless space. The stem of that “T” is where they do most of their work, swiveling their chairs to face each other, as if about to play a game of chess, which they sort of do. It’s all strategizing, really. How do we get this landlord to delay eviction? Can we get ministries to cover rent? Phone conversations mostly take place on speakerphone, the two of them huddled as they assess a client’s needs or negotiate with landlords or homeless-service providers, like shelters. “If you talk to her, you talk to me,” Nolden says. “We’re attached at the hip.”

    Tonia Nolden (left) and Erin Klein in their "prevention and diversion" office.

    Families, particularly single mothers, often walk into their office, sitting at the end of the “T” in a plastic chair. In late August, a tall, striking 21-year-old, a native of Liberia, came into the office in a state of panic, tears falling. Nolden shut the door. The single mother of a precocious three-year-old boy had already fled domestic violence in New York. Now she was saying that the “friends” she was doubled up with in Louisville were pushing her toward sex work. The woman had that morning stuffed all her belongings into plastic trash bags, brought them to the Coalition’s offices and debated tossing them in a dumpster at the side of the building. If she was going to be homeless, better to lighten her load. “It was scary for me,” the woman, who goes by “China,” would later reflect. “I didn’t see a future. I just saw blank.”

    Klein and Nolden managed to get China and her son into the Volunteers of America family shelter that day. She stayed there about three months, earning her high school diploma and getting work at a beauty supply store, all the while keeping in touch with Klein and Nolden, even texting a photo of herself in a royal-blue cap and gown the day she clutched her diploma for the first time. She’s now living in her own apartment with the help of a housing voucher that will cover a portion of her rent for about a year. “They’re the best thing that happened to me,” China said one day in the fall.

    Since its July inception, the prevention and diversion program has assisted 150 families, and 52 were still active cases as of mid-December. In about 30 instances, Klein and Nolden helped prevent an eviction. Twenty-five families wound up in an emergency shelter. Other arrangements were nailed down for most of the others. Klein and Nolden learn of needy families through JCPS and homeless-service providers, as well as the homeless shelter reservation line manned by Coalition staff and interns. “I also get a lot of calls from ‘friends,’” Klein says, using air quotes. “Like: You helped my friend get into housing. Can you help me?”


    Usually Klein and Nolden begin their day with a list of clients to reach out to. But, Klein says, “The day goes where it takes us.” Like the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, when a 22-year-old mother of a two-year-old and one-year-old arrived at the Coalition seeking help. She’d been living out of her car for more than a year and her two-year-old was in the hospital with pneumonia-like symptoms. Klein has seen plenty of cars that have been lived in. “Hers was one of the worst,” she says. Laundry baskets of clothes, diapers, wipes, shoes — all crammed into a compact Mazda. The woman said she occasionally used her mom’s place to shower. But her mom lived in subsidized housing and she could not stay there due to occupancy rules.

    HUD’s definition of homeless is a person living someplace not meant for human habitation — a tent, the sidewalk, a garage, a car, as well as a homeless shelter. When determining assistance for students, public school systems like JCPS use the definition of homelessness provided by the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistant Act of 1987. It’s a wider definition that includes any child doubled up with relatives or friends or living in motels or campgrounds.

    The 22-year-old mother Klein met with after Thanksgiving would be considered HUD homeless. With that designation, the moment she (or anyone who is HUD homeless) connects with a shelter or the Coalition for the Homeless, a nine-page assessment to gauge vulnerability must be completed. Disabilities, small children, multiple children, illnesses, pregnancy — those all add points to a score that’s entered into a Homeless Management Information System (HMIS), a sort of Doppler radar that tracks where homeless people are staying, if they’ve received assistance or, perhaps, if they’ve been banned from certain shelters for breaking rules. HMIS also includes the family-shelter waitlist.

    Families with high-priority scores may exit the waitlist quicker than those with lower scores. (They will also get first dibs when permanent supportive housing opportunities arise.) Louisville has three emergency night shelters for families: Volunteers for America in Shelby Park can fit just over 20 families, Salvation Army on Brook Street in the old Male High School has six family units, and Wayside Christian Mission on Jefferson Street can take in 70 family members, splitting them between the men’s and women’s shelter space. The Center for Women and Families also houses some homeless women and children fleeing domestic violence, though their space isn’t exclusively for homeless families, and it’s nearly always at capacity. (Both Wayside and Salvation Army have space for homeless singles and St. Vincent de Paul Ozanam Inn serves only men.)

    Sometimes, 25 or 30 families will be on the waitlist. Near the end of 2018, there were 72. One family had been on it since August. On the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, it was cold, a so-called White Flag night, meaning shelters would open more space. (White Flag nights occur when temperatures dip below 35 degrees or rise above 95 degrees.) Klein recommended that the 22-year-old head to Wayside, the only shelter that reliably accepts any family that shows up during White Flag, magically jigsawing their rooms and gymnasium to squeeze a family in. “I don’t get it,” Klein says. “They make space appear.”

    Klein is 33 and funny, a self-described “doer” who’s unfazed at the idea of “harassing” shelter staff or service providers on behalf of a family. But she admits this is heavy work. Who wants to carry the image of babies spending nights in a car sandwiched between laundry baskets? So she pushes forward — let’s fix it, no purpose in idling with aching hearts.

    Nolden, who is 50, is quieter, always addressing clients in a maternal, gentle tone. Maybe it’s the years she spent working at the Center for Women and Families with victims of domestic violence. When she gets rolling on a case — calling landlords, hunting for affordable apartments — she may sit at her desk for hours, never mind the beep beep from her watch. “The Apple Watch reminds me to stand up and I ignore it,” she says with a laugh.

    Clients like China help bring moments of clarity, satisfaction. Nolden, who is the mother of two grown children, says sometimes what she witnesses hits her. This fall she started working with a mother and her 12 children who, as of December, had friends helping to pay for a hotel. Recently, the mother found out she had been approved for a Section 8 housing voucher. Good news. And a real challenge: HUD requires a certain amount of space depending on family size and has caps on rent. To use the voucher, the family must find a landlord with a six-bedroom house renting at about $1,800 or less per month. And that landlord must be open to tenants with vouchers.

    Nolden’s also been keeping tabs on a mother and her teenage son. They’ve been staying in a car since being evicted. The mother has a speech impediment related to a fall down stairs in one of the shoddy homes she and her son previously lived in. So it’s up to the son to call on behalf of his mom to check on the waitlist. (Families must check in every few days. If they haven’t been heard from for a week, they will be taken off the waitlist on the assumption they’ve found other shelter.) A few tears slide down Nolden’s cheeks when she thinks about that high school student. “I can’t imagine my kids having to manage our lives like that,” she says, reaching for a tissue to dab at the corner of her eyes. “He needs to be focusing on graduation. Right now, that child is having to figure out where he’s going to sleep with his mom.”


    Family homelessness has been a problem in Louisville for years, decades even. “I’ve been here almost 31 years. Our family shelter beds have always remained full,” says Nina Moseley, the chief operation officer of Wayside Christian Mission. (Wayside is currently fundraising to expand space for families.) This past July, UP for Women and Children, a day shelter across from the new Omni Hotel, opened its doors, estimating it would serve 200 women and children in its first year. Within four months, 200 women and children had stopped in for a shower, clothing, diapers and wipes, food or more long-term case management.

    For all the talk of compassion and a pleasant cost of living in Louisville, it can be quicksand for poor families, with no tidy, sure escape. The current waiting list for Section 8 housing vouchers stands at about 12,000, and thousands more are waiting for public-housing units to open. Jefferson County’s eviction rate is double the national average; each year, anywhere from about 6,000 to 7,500 households are evicted. Louisville’s “fair market rent” for a two-bedroom is $820. A renter would have to earn close to $16 an hour to afford that; Louisville’s minimum wage is $7.25. The Louisville Affordable Housing Trust Fund estimates the need for decent, reasonably priced rental housing is so great that the city needs more than 65,000 units to catch up with demand. (Cities across the nation are battling similar issues with a lack of affordable housing.)

    In Louisville, over the course of a year, there can be anywhere from 150 to 300-plus families either in shelters or living in cars — or, sometimes, on the streets.

    Well aware of these hurdles, the Coalition has long wanted to dedicate staff toward family homelessness, both preventing those about to fall and steering those already on the streets toward something more stable. “But we had no money,” says Mary Frances Schafer, the Coalition’s director of community coordination. Then last year, the Coalition received two grants worth about $40,000. The prevention and diversion program was born. “We don’t have enough preventative housing options for families,” Schafer says, “so we could try to divert them, work with them on things they need to do before they get housing — like finding ways to pay off debt or somehow keeping them wherever they are. We’re dealing with (people) who are right on the edge, so can we extend that edge a little longer.”

    Schafer says Klein and Nolden are connecting with homeless families more effectively, checking in on them often. In the past, no one was tasked with doing that, leading to challenges when contacting families to alert them to a vacancy in one of the shelters. “If you couldn’t contact them or they had no phone or it was lost, we’d go on to the next family. It was frustrating,” Schafer says, “because we knew families were living on the streets and there was nothing we could do.”

    From October 2017 through September 2018, the Coalition tallied 266 homeless families (or 853 adults and children) who were on the streets or in shelter. That’s down from the previous year’s total of nearly 340 families (or just over 1,000 adults and children). Explaining the drop requires context. Families in transitional housing units used to be included in that count. Within the last few years, though, transitional housing associated with local shelters has been largely replaced with a program known as rapid re-housing. Families receive temporary housing vouchers that cover rent for a short period of time, the hope being that, when the rent assistance ends within a year or two, the tenant will be well-equipped to pay monthly rent on their own. Since those families are technically housed, the Coalition no longer includes them in its annual homeless census.

    HUD touts rapid re-housing as a success, with 80 to 90 percent of families maintaining their housing. But families are not tracked over a long period of time, just six months to a year after assistance ends. “I don’t think we track long enough,” Schafer says. Louisville currently has close to 100 rapid re-housing vouchers in use. If tenants have stable income, rapid re-housing is more likely to be successful, Schafer says, adding, “Eventually, they’re going to lose assistance. When that assistance ends it could be a precarious situation.”

    Homelessness in Louisville grabbed a lot of attention toward the end of 2018. News of two homeless individuals dying outside in freezing weather sparked outrage. The colony of men and women lined underneath the overpass on Jefferson Street spurred a unanimous vote by Metro Council to direct $500,000 in surplus money toward homeless outreach and, possibly, low-barrier shelters for the winter. In a recent written statement, Natalie Harris, the Coalition’s executive director, said the congregation of homeless people under the highway is largely due to projects meant to uplift the city, like the new soccer stadium under construction in Butchertown and downtown business development. “While these efforts are positive for the majority of our citizens, they displaced people hidden in camps and abandoned buildings,” she wrote, adding, “It is also important to note that sleeping outside is dangerous and uncomfortable. When people without resources see a spot where others are camping away from the elements, with lighting to deter crime and rodents, they see these sites as safer.” (Nina Moseley says many of those lined outside her shelter simply don’t want to come inside and she’s frustrated by the “rampant drug use” she says is occurring.)

    Schafer says beyond the $500,000 pledge, more shelter is needed. And that’s a bit of a boomerang. “Since I’ve been doing this — 20 years — we’ve been saying we do not want to build more shelters. We want to move out of shelters and move them into permanent housing. Well, yes,” Schafer says, pausing. “That’s what we want to do still. But we’ve gotten to the point where we have too many people on the street, so we’re going to have to do something on both sides — families and single homeless adults — to give more opportunity for shelter, until we can get them into more permanent housing.”


    In late June, Klein found the prevention and diversion program’s first family. They were living under Joe’s Crab Shack on the waterfront. Timothy Lee, Michelle Gray and her teenage son would lay blankets in a well-hidden corner under the restaurant that’s elevated by concrete pillars. Employees knew they were there, occasionally bringing them packages of food. Geese kept a respectful distance. The fish smell became a tolerated companion. But the Ohio River, after a downpour, crept a little too close, invading their space.

    Every morning the threesome would pack their belongings into backpacks and seek day-labor jobs. Gray’s son usually made it to school but sometimes didn’t. “It was hard on him,” Lee says. And on this went for two months. Lee and Gray, who are both 35, say they ended up homeless after living in a poorly insulated home last winter. Their LG&E bill ballooned and soon they say they owed the utility company thousands of dollars. They were evicted and hopped around, staying in a boarding house for a bit. They considered Wayside, but couples are separated there and Lee and Gray are close, affectionate. They wanted to trudge through this together. So they made their way to beneath Joe’s Crab Shack. “The hardest part was, you know, as a man,” Lee says, trailing off. He was scared police might find them or, worse, that somebody might try to hurt them. “I’ve got my woman and I couldn’t sleep. I may doze off, but my mind is trying to be alert.”

    Klein learned about the family after they had come into the Coalition’s office seeking TARC tickets. In the days following, she searched for shelter space, advocated on their behalf. She checked in with Lee and Gray almost every day. Within a week, she had gotten them into Volunteers of America. While there, the couple worked with a VOA case manager and secured work in the janitorial field. By October, they moved into their own place in west Louisville with the help of a rapid re-housing voucher. “This past Thanksgiving my mama came over and it was beautiful,” Lee says. “Normally I would go to my mother’s house but this year she came to my house. We made yams and roast. My mama came to my house. Powerful.” Lee and Gray are so grateful to Klein that they’ll occasionally walk 22 blocks from their home to the Coalition’s office just to say hello. “I love this beautiful girl,” Lee says one day, hugging Klein around the neck.


    On a 35-degree morning in December, Samantha bobs up and down without a winter coat at a bus stop across from Hotel Louisville, trying to stay warm. A black University of Louisville fleece hangs loose on her small frame, almost completely masking her swollen belly. Samantha is due with her fourth child this spring. The family is on their way to the Family Health Centers in the Portland neighborhood. Timothy, who is tall with an easygoing grin, bares the chill in just a black hoodie. At their hips, Junior and Amare wear winter coats.

    The boys look almost identical, with faces so precious that strangers gasp in delight when in their orbit. Perhaps Junior knows it because he’s often snatching his mother’s phone to take photos of himself. Amare’s more of an observer, his deep brown eyes intensely watching the world from his belted place in a pink-and-black stroller. It’s not surprising that when the family was on the streets, a stranger took to them. By the time Klein connected with Samantha at the Coalition’s office at the end of November, a woman had helped pay for a night in a hotel and then pledged an additional $300 toward the family’s month-long Hotel Louisville stay.

    Timothy, Samantha and their two young children head to the public library.

    Since then, Klein has become a steady presence in their life. When Junior sees her, he stretches his arms up in a V, gesturing for a hug. Klein swoops in, happy to oblige. “I think (Klein and Nolden) are probably making families feel more connected, giving a level of hope,” says Tamara Reif, associate vice president of program services with Volunteers for America. As December wears on, though, Samantha feels a little flat, like this detour into homelessness will forever linger. “I’m ready to get out of this motel,” she says softly one afternoon. All four to a room, it’s just so cramped. She’s not entirely excited about a shelter either. A home of their own, that’s the finish line.

    They’ve become regulars at soup kitchens and the public library. Samantha will slide a gold-and-red knit cap on Junior’s head, then dig out a fuzzy hat for herself. It’s light brown and cream with two long braids down the side, giving the Florida native a Nordic look. “We came here with no hats. Now, everybody gives us one,” Samantha says with a laugh. They’re not used to the cold yet. But at least they’re better prepared for it.

    The future of the prevention and diversion program relies heavily on HUD. If the agency decides to focus funds on family homelessness — like it has in the past with chronic, youth and veteran homelessness — the program will likely continue past the summer, maybe even expand. Giselle Danger-Mercaderes, who works with homeless students in JCPS, says Klein and Nolden have implemented a safety net for homeless families — at least the beginnings of one. “They’re answering emails and texts at 10 p.m.,” she says. “We need a couple more Erin and Tonias.”

    One afternoon, Klein comes to visit Samantha’s family. Junior gets his hug and Klein cheers Samantha’s growing belly. “You’re getting so big!” she says. But Samantha’s preoccupied. It’s the middle of December and the family only has until Dec. 30 at Hotel Louisville. She and Timothy are still waiting on their birth certificates, Social Security cards and IDs. Once that happens, Timothy, who has 15 years experience as a cook, will start putting in applications for work. Because Samantha is pregnant and they have two other children here in Louisville, they should be high priority on the shelter waitlist. But for now, all space is taken.

    “How’s the waitlist looking?” Samantha asks Klein. “Promising?”

    “Well, I don’t ever make promises, but there’s a lot of different options we’re exploring,” Klein says.

    Timothy, who is strapping a tired Amare into a stroller, looks up. “Something will come through,” he states, calmly, confidently.

    “Yes,” Klein says, with a reassuring nod and smile, “something will.”


    This originally appeared in the January 2019 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline "Seeking Shelter." To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Photos by Mickie Winters,

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