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May 19, 2010

The shame of our great city

One hundred years ago, the profession of “planning” was founded as a movement to end unsanitary and overcrowded housing in our nation’s cities. These new planning regulations eventually were passed in cities across the nation, including Louisville. Did it help? Along with improved medical care, life expectancy in the cities rose from 49 years of age in 1910 to 75 years of age in 2010.

Today, the tragedy of homelessness continues to grow with no end in sight. Louisville’s homeless men, women and children reside in shelters lacking the kind of protections granted to renters, homeowners, public housing residents and even homeless individuals in more than 100 other American cities. With the exception of being able to leave a shelter voluntarily, our jails provide better accommodations than some of our existing shelters.

Late last year, a Metro-appointed Homeless Shelter Task Force was charged with drafting recommendations to improve the situation, but has so far failed to address the problems plaguing our shelters. Why? Because the task force excludes important stakeholders needed to create a progressive model law. The task force includes zero homeless individuals, nobody from the University of Louisville (including specialists in homeless policy), no legal experts familiar with recently passed homeless regulations in other cities, and no representatives from the Original Highlands, the neighborhood where Wayside Christian Mission initially sought to operate a “mega-shelter,” a controversy that ultimately resulted in the creation of this task force. Wayside eventually ended up opening its shelter for women and children at the former Hotel Louisville on West Broadway.

Hundreds of other cities have enacted model laws that have been endorsed and supported by homeless persons and are successful, but Louisville’s task force doesn’t want to hear about them. When a group of concerned citizens — ourselves included — urged the Metro Planning Commission to create this task force, we never dreamed so many important stakeholders would be excluded from the process.

Last month, the task force compiled a list of recommendations that largely ignored the pressing issues of sanitation, overcrowding, safety, auditing and accountability in shelters. More shocking is the abject failure of the task force to document the filthy and overcrowded conditions of some local shelters, particularly at night. Making matters worse, the task force recommends against any kind of government oversight and accountability.

Indeed, homeless shelters are probably some of the most dangerous places to live in Louisville. How bad is it? In some shelters, 50 or more individuals sleep on mats on the floor in one room; bathrooms are often filthy, with no toilet paper or soap. Louisville’s dirty little secret is that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and Metro government are helping to fund several shelters that are unsanitary, unsafe and overcrowded.

In addition to failing to adequately address these problems, the task force has endorsed the operation of “mega-shelters.”

We recently conducted a survey of more than 100 cities, which revealed that large shelter operations in residential neighborhoods often cause an increase in crime and a decline in nearby property values. It is not fair to put a massive shelter in a struggling, inner city, historic neighborhood already fighting against falling home values and increasing foreclosures.

Homeless individuals in New York City have experienced many more victories compared to those in Louisville when it comes to the rights and responsibilities of both the homeless and shelter operators. In New York, the homeless sleep in beds, not on the floor, have clean restrooms, are not piled liked sardines 50 to a room, and they are required to sign up for various programs to help them get out of shelters. In addition, proposed mega-shelters of 100 or more persons are disallowed there, and local government is in charge of licensing and inspections.

Our survey shows that homeless people in other cities are winning the battle to ensure safe and decent shelters, but that’s not the case here — in Louisville, they can’t even get a spot on a task force.

John I. Gilderbloom is a professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Urban Neighborhoods at U of L, sun.louisville.edu. Chuck Burke is president of the Original Highlands Neighborhood Association.

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