Health Investigations


The men at the camp near Lexington Road stay busy chopping wood, cleaning dishes and fixing bikes. 

They sleep in ramshackle tents perched on the edge of a steep embankment. Cars buzz by on Lexington Road and a train rumbles overhead on a nearby viaduct.

Robert, who declined to share his last name because some family members don’t know he’s homeless, said he and the other residents try to stay clean. As coronavirus fears have taken hold, they’re using hand sanitizer delivered by homeless outreach groups. They boil water over the fire to wash dishes. 

And they’re strict about one recommendation — social distancing.

“We’re not touchy-feely people,” he said with a laugh. “We don’t like to be touched.”

As COVID-19 is spreading across the country, the pandemic puts into the forefront one of life’s most fundamental practices of hygiene: washing your hands. At Robert’s camp, there is no running water.

Homeless service providers are ramping up their focus on cleanliness for clients who use shelters. Catherine McGeeney, a spokesperson for the Coalition for the Homeless, said shelters across the city are working with the Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness and the National Alliance to End Homelessness. She’s confident shelters are uniquely equipped to handle the pressure of a growing pandemic.

“They are used to dealing with these types of outbreaks and crises,” she said. “We trust them.”

Gov. Andy Beshear recommended that homeless shelters to follow the guidance state officials are disseminating to businesses during a press conference Wednesday evening. He encouraged practicing social distancing, providing hand sanitizer and require hand washing in shelters. “There are certainly some challenges,” he said. “Be as thoughtful as you can.”

Jacob Ryan | wfpl.org

Flyers at the St. John Center for Homeless Men encouraging good hygiene.

At Wayside Christian Mission, chief operating officer Nina Moseley said the shelter has sinks, soap and thousands of donated face masks to help protect the some 500 people who sleep there each night.

“We’re making sure everyone washes their hands,” Moseley said. “We are always using disinfectant and wipe everything down, daily.”

But the shelter is struggling to keep hand sanitizer in stock.

At the Salvation Army, which houses about 200 people each night in emergency shelter and long term housing, staff members are following “our typical winter flu protocol,” said David Yarmuth, a spokesperson.

He said guests are screened and those exhibiting any symptoms of coronavirus will be taken by Louisville Metro EMS to a local hospital. Staff who show symptoms are asked to stay home.

“This is just a matter of using good judgment,” Yarmuth said.

The protocol is much the same at St. Vincent de Paul, a shelter with about 80 emergency shelter beds.

No shelter reported having space to quarantine guests.

Hand sanitizer placed on counters and tables is a common sight at the St. John Center for Homeless Men, a day shelter on the east side of downtown. 

Since the outbreak began, center staff have been offering daily learning sessions for maintaining hygiene. An announcement blares over the loudspeaker each hour reminding the men to wash their hands.

And just inside the center’s door, a sign warns of the dangers of COVID-19 and the importance to wash hands, cover coughs, and respect personal space.

Shannon Frey, the volunteer coordinator at the center, said the message seems to be sticking.

“The guys really are very aware of what’s going on,” she said. “They are washing their hands a lot more than they normally have.”

Jacob Ryan | wfpl.org

Ron Knotts at the St. John Center for Homeless Men

Ron Knotts, a 54-year old who spends most days at the shelter, holds his hands up to show them off.

“Spotless,” he said. “I wash my hands constantly.”

Robert and the men at the camp also use the St. John Center, when they want to shower, warm up and rest.

While they’re being careful, Robert said avoiding coronavirus is not his top priority. 

Officers with the Louisville Metro Police Department told them they had 24 hours to leave or be arrested for trespassing, so they’re packing their things and worrying about where they’ll go next.

Jacob Ryan is a reporter for the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.