Extreme Cold Threatens People Living on the Streets
Few people have escaped the wrath of Louisville’s bitter temperatures this winter. Maybe you have had to deal with icy roads, broken pipes, or childcare issues. Maybe you are the type to have an existential crises about why you don’t live in the Philippines every time the temperature drops below 30° (me). In any case, it has been a tough couple weeks for us all. None are more affected by the extreme weather than individuals struggling with homelessness.
Have you ever wondered what people living on the streets do when the temperatures are dangerously cold? Louisville has an amazing support network for individuals and families that need assistance with housing. The reality is, though, we cannot provide permanent supportive housing for everyone. There are still folks in our community that find themselves at the mercy of the weather. I wondered, what do we do to help these people?
Helping the People We Cannot House
To answer some of these questions, I decided to catch-up with Lonnie Williams, the Program Director at St. Vincent de Paul’s Ozanam Inn, our men-only emergency shelter. I had originally scheduled the interview to talk with Lonnie about Operation White Flag, which I will get to in a minute. I realized throughout our conversation, though, that I know a lot less about homelessness than I thought I did. So bear with me, I have a lot to process with you.
Operation White Flag
First, the reason for this piece: Operation White Flag addresses the reality that there are days when it is just too dangerous for people to be outside. In order to minimize temperature related incidents, any night when the temperature drops below 35° F (with or without windchill) or rises above 92° F, Operation White Flag goes into effect. During White Flag conditions, the local emergency shelters are permitted to exceed the maximum occupancy for the building. This means that any man that calls or comes to our shelter asking for help during Operation White Flag is provided with a blanket, pillow, air mattress, and a warm place to stay for the night. According to Lonnie, during the winter, we typically house an additional 30–40 men on a white-flag night. If we are already at capacity, this can bring our occupancy to a total of 132 men.
Residents Put Their Aside Differences to Help Their Neighbors
As I am sure many of you can imagine, white-flag nights are some of the toughest at St. Vincent de Paul. As Lonnie mentioned with a smile “The maximum occupancy for our building is 92 for a reason.” Close quarters and limited resources can be problematic in the shelter. Many men that come here struggle with mental illness, anxiety, substance abuse, PTSD, or other issues that can make high-stress situations a particular challenge. These types of issues are exceedingly prevalent in the population we serve because they can be both a cause and effect of homelessness. For many individuals, mental illness is a major contributing factor to their housing insecurity. Those that find themselves homeless as a result of other circumstances may develop new symptoms/disorders while they are on the streets. Keeping the peace during these high-stress nights is one of the biggest challenges staff face at the Ozanam Inn.
Staff are Challenged by the Diversity of Clients
As we talked, the conversation shifted from White Flag into Lonnie’s experience managing the shelter on day to day basis. I was fascinated to hear about the diversity of the men that come to the shelter. I had always assumed that circumstances that lead to a single person needing emergency shelter were very cut and dry. In my mind, the sequence began when someone lost income as a result of a new factor in their lives (maybe substance abuse or layoffs, maybe in the process of trying to leave an abusive relationship, etc.). For whatever reason, they lack the social capital (the non-material factors such as education, access to health care, having a support network, etc) to overcome the issue. Then, they lose their home as a result of these circumstances.
Every Client Has Their Own Story
“The interesting thing about our job,” says Lonnie, “is that I have had an 18-year-old client and I have had 81-year-old client. Working with each client is totally different. You can’t treat them the same. Their family structure is different, their housing is different, their goals are different. Mental health issues, substance abuse, domestic violence, or all three together in one, all need to be handled differently. A man might be going through a divorce after 60 years of marriage, verses an 18 year old being disrespectful and getting thrown out.”
Lonnie even mentioned that in some cases, people view the shelter as a substitute for an assisted living facility. In my privileged little bubble, learning this reality was completely mind blowing. Can you imagine bringing an elderly or sick family member to an Emergency Shelter? What it would be like to have access to so few services that this was your best option?
Louisville’s Homeless Population is Aging
I was also interested to learn that at this point in time, the majority of our clients at the Ozanam Inn are older folks. Lonnie made the observation that in Louisville, our homeless population is ageing. According to the most recent studies of the Ozanam Inn, about 53% of the clients it serves are over the age over 45; many fall between the ages of 55-62.
I asked Lonnie why he thought that so many people in this age range were struggling, and he mentioned that this is a sensitive time in many men’s lives. Most of the men in this demographic have worked in low-paying jobs for their entire lives. They were unable to acquire savings, and then a crisis strikes. Lonnie finds that many of his clients face depression as reflection leads them to struggle with age old question of “How did I end up here?”
For many, the stigma associated with living in the shelter can cause or further exacerbate strained family relationships, leading to isolation. According to a recently conducted survey with the (then current) residents at the Ozanam Inn, all but one of the residents had at least one child. When they were asked if they had contact with their children, the majority of the men answered no.
Operation White Flag Unites the Community with Hope
My interview with Lonnie challenged me to think differently about homelessness in our community. I also walked away with an invigorated sense of hope for the future. Operation White Flag is an example of the good that can happen when the community comes together to reach a common goal. As Lonnie mentioned, SVDP is only one part of a larger team working together to keep people safe. I am grateful for the empathy the clients show each other during these stressful times. I am inspired by the staff’s commitment to helping every client meet their goals. It shows me that there is always a possibility for a fresh start in life, even for the people that our society has failed. There is always hope.