It’s about 5 a.m. and about 15 degrees. Volunteers walk over snow, onto the railroad tracks near Dixie Highway to assist with Louisville’s annual homeless count. Volunteers shout toward a dark spot underneath an I-264 overpass.
“Anybody up there?” asks Natalie Reteneller, development director at YMCA Safe Place services.
In two hours the group—just one of many spread across the city—find five people who agree to answer several questions.
“In the past three years how many times have you been housed and then homeless again?” asks volunteer Molly Permenter, who also works for Safe Place during the day.
“I can’t tell exactly how many. It’s been quite a bit,” says Jeffrey, who stands in the cold, without shoes.
This winter has proven to be especially cold—schools closed because of the below-zero wind chills, travel has been complicated because of icy roads. But Louisville’s homeless have shelter from the life-threatening cold through the federally funded White Flag program.
But White Flag’s increased usage has come at a time of decreased funding.
Most homeless people are seeking shelter, which is one reason why last week’s homeless count is done in winter. On cold nights like these shelters are supposed to get an extra $5 per person through the White Flag program, which allows anyone to seek shelter when the temperature dips below 35 degrees or above 95.
In the last three months of 2013 (the program data is available in quarters), that happened about 3,400 times. The previous year it happened just 720 times. Now, the money for White Flag fund has run out but shelters are still helping anyone who comes through their doors on these cold nights.
In January, with the temperatures unusually low, almost every night was a White Flag night, says Johanna Wint, director of the Salvation Army’s Center of Hope.
Shelters received their last checks for White Flag nights last month and will not get any extra money for the program until new funds are allocated this summer.
“It’s more bathrooms, it’s more water, it’s more toilet paper. The everyday things that just add up,” Wint says,.
While the extra White Flag funds are a help, they don’t cover the extra costs of operating the shelter and serving more bodies, she says.
For example, Wint estimates food costs alone are an additional $100 per day on White Flag nights.
“We had been serving about 90 people for breakfast every morning,” she says. “We’re up to 140 every [White Flag] morning.”
This fiscal year, about $19,000 was allocated to Louisville’s White Flag program—compared to $34,000 the year before, says Natalie Harris, executive director of Louisville’s Coalition for the Homeless.
The cut was partly because of the federal sequester, she says.
At Wayside Christian Mission, the shelter may serve up to 550 each night. On White Flag nights, that number could increase to 650, says chief operating officer Nina Mosely.
“We can’t dwell on those negatives. We can’t control the weather. All we can do is control how we respond to it and continue to make these services available to the most vulnerable people in our community,” she says.
Shelters say they’ll continue serving anyone who needs help, and will ask for more money when Metro Louisville begins its allocation process this year, but that may be a difficult sell with other agencies also competing for cash, Harris says.
Meanwhile, some homeless people, including Jeffrey, choose to brave the cold during these cold nights instead of seeking warmth in a shelter.
Last week, 166 volunteers helped count 70 homeless people on the street for the annual count, Harris says. In 2013, the on-the-street count was 63 people. In 2012, the number was 152.
Final results of the total Louisville homeless count will be released later this year.