Tim Harrison didn’t expect to be released from prison last week.
When he got the news, he argued with the guards. He told them they had the wrong guy. He said his sentence wasn’t yet up.
But really, he just didn’t want to leave.
“I wasn’t ready,” he said.
Prison provided Harrison, 56, with a bed, a job and stability. Meals and medicine came regularly. He had access to a razor and clean clothes.
Now, he spends his nights in a crawl space beneath the library. His belongings get stuffed into a backpack as he crosses the city on foot, struggling to find ways to scrape by.
While city officials tout their recent success in developing a system to quickly get veterans off the street and into stable housing, thousands of people remain without a place to live. In fact, some 6,500 people are considered homeless in Louisville, according to a 2015 census from the Coalition for the Homeless.
On Wednesday, a few hundred homeless people lined up at the Salvation Army in downtown Louisville shortly after daybreak for an event that brings together dozens of service providers to help “speed up the process of being homeless,” according to Natalie Harris, the executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless.
“You can get all those services in one place,” she said.
Mayor Greg Fischer pointed to the one-day event as supporting evidence for his oft-repeated moniker “Compassionate City.” He said homelessness is something cities across the country, including Louisville, will have to deal with for years to come.
“It always has been,” he said.
As Fischer visited with service providers inside the Salvation Army, Harrison stood outside waiting. He said since his release from prison on Friday, he’s had a difficult time getting his life back in order. He sought help from local shelters but kept getting “the runaround,” he said.
To get access to shelters, Harrison needed an identification card and a health screening, which he didn’t have. “That took a day,” he said.
When he asked about employment, he was told to go online and fill out applications.
“I don’t know how to do that,” he said.
In prison, he said he chose to work, not take computer classes. So he’s stuck, a free man without freedom. He wants a job, a home, a refrigerator.
“It’s the little things,” he said.
A Long Wait
Harrison waited outside for more than an hour before the doors to the Salvation Army opened. The line of homeless men and women wound through the parking lot, into a cramped hallway and to a set of doors.
At the doors, a man handed Harrison a numbered ticket and directed him to a table of doughnuts and coffee. He bypassed the snacks and made his way to another set of doors, beyond which were booths of service providers offering health screenings, housing support and free backpacks.
But Harrison had to wait for his number to be called. A woman in an electric wheelchair scolded him to get out of her way. He stepped back, surveyed the crowded room and sighed.
“Gonna be a little while,” he said.
After two decades in prison and nearly a week wandering the streets of Louisville looking for a chance to rebuild his life, waiting is something Harrison can do — for now.
For just how long, though, he’s unsure.
He said each passing day on the street makes prison look better. In there, he said, he had a life and a home.