On many days, Kenny Winfield found comfort in alcohol—typically tall cans of Olde English. He’d drink just about anything, said his sister, Arleathiea Winfield.
Last Thursday, on a bitterly frigid day amid the city’s extreme cold snap, Winfield started drinking early. By late that night, neighbors of the St. John Center for Homeless Men found him dead outside the building, where he spent many days warming up.
Like many other homeless men and women, Winfield fought his own personal demons, struggles that were exacerbated when the thermometer dropped to single digits.
“Being that he was drunk, he didn’t feel no cold,” his sister explained.
The preliminary cause of Winfield’s death was hypothermia, according to the Jefferson County Coroner’s Office. A toxicology report won’t be completed for about two months.
Winfield, 49, spent the last 12 years of his life on the streets, without a home, his sister said. He had a job many years ago, a home too. But personal tragedy, some brushes with the law, and alcohol abuse led him to a life on Louisville’s streets, according to friends, family and court records
“He didn’t choose to be homeless,” his sister said. “It fell upon him.”
And the fall came hard and fast.
Kenny Winfield moved in 1999 from Brooklyn to Louisville, where his mother and older brother, James Carter Jr., lived.
In those first few years, Winfield’s life was pretty good.
“He kept a job, kept a roof over his head and did his thing,” Carter said.
He worked in warehouses, Circuit City, Kroger and Brown-Forman, to name a few, his family noted. He lived in a home near Manslick Road.
In 2003, his mother and father died, just a few weeks apart.
“It drove Kenny to that drinking consistently and he couldn’t stop,” Arleathiea Winfield said. “He couldn’t cope with that.”
The once close sibling who shared in practical jokes and childhood squabbles quickly drifted apart from his brother and sister.
She said Kenny developed “demons” inside him and he sought solace at the bottom of a beer can or bottle of gin. Sometimes both.
Winfield was soon out on the street. He stayed mostly in encampments near Campbell Street and River Road, according to his longtime friend Alvin Cooper, 51, himself homeless until recently.
Winfield weaved in and out of jail, racking up dozens of criminal charges for disorderly conduct, alcohol intoxication in a public place, and DUI, among others, court records show.
Traumatic events like the death of a loved one mixed with substance abuse is a “toxic soup” that can lead someone to neglect the factors that attribute to their stability and end up on the street, said John Gilderbloom, the director of University of Louisville’s Center for Sustainable Neighborhoods.
Gilderbloom said there is a relationship between the “forces that shape and cause homelessness”—such as addiction, mental illness, a lack of education—and circumstances that lead someone to living on the streets.
“But some prefer just to live their lives and have that kind of privacy,” he added.
Cooper, Winfield’s pal, said Kenny valued his privacy. Like many others without homes, Winfield didn’t like to stay in shelters.
“It’s a lot of pride, too,” he said. “Kenny, as a person, he wanted to do things on his own.”
This meant nights in a tent or on the street, instead of a shelter.
Shelters, Gilderbloom said, aren’t always the most welcoming place for people.
“It’s hard enough for two people living together to figure out how to live together, let alone 50 strangers who might have mental health problems, drug problems, a history of violence—they might even be wanted by police,” he said.
Louisville has about 650 emergency shelter beds available year-round for residents, said Natalie Harris, director of the Coalition for the Homeless. Each bed is occupied every night.
On especially hot or cold nights, shelter occupancy can increase by about 300 people. On these nights people sleep in chairs or on benches. Mats line the floor side-by-side.
Winfield turned down numerous invitations to stay with family. His friend, Cooper, recently landed permanent housing and moved into a one-bedroom apartment. He said he often extended an invitation to Winfield to stay, but he declined every time.
“It makes me mad that he did this when he didn’t have to,” said his brother, James Carter Jr. “Sometimes it’s OK to ask for help.”
Addiction Kept Him Out on the Streets
Cooper said he had never seen Kenny drink as much as he did during the last eight months.
The stress of homelessness, coupled with mental health issues weighed heavy on Winfield, Cooper said. Winfield was prescribed a handful of medications for his ills, but Kenny went for pints—not pills, Cooper recalled.
It’s “what kept him out here on the streets,” Cooper said. “It’s what kept him from calling his brother, kept him from calling his sister.”
Winfield wasn’t alone. Nearly a third of all homeless people in the U.S. suffer from alcohol addiction, Gilderbloom said. Many other battle with drug addiction, he said.
“Drugs and alcohol fuel mental illness to a great degree,” he added.
Arleathiea Winfield said her brother had a “good heart.”
He also had a girlfriend, Stacy Cunningham, who goes by the nickname “Dash.”
Cunningham, 34, said Winfield would often eschew the shelter so he could be with her. Only one emergency shelter in Louisville allows couples to remain together overnight.
Cunningham said she was with Winfield the night he died. They were drinking together with a friend near the BP gas station at East Broadway and Hancock Street. The friend had just bought a pair of boots for them.
Winfield and Cunningham got in an argument on their way back to a homeless encampment near Liberty Street, she recalled. He hung back and sat for spell on the steps outside of the St. John Center, she said.
“The last words I heard from him were, ‘I’m on my way, just give me a few minutes.'”
Cunningham went on to their camping spot on Liberty Street, herself so intoxicated she nodded off before Winfield arrived. She woke up the next morning alone and cold, a sheet of ice across the blankets.
She believes Winfield passed out on the steps during the night.
“It didn’t matter hot, cold, rain, dry, when that man got too much in him he would pass out on the sidewalk, in the middle of the street, everywhere,” she said. “He would just shut down that quickly.”
And on this night, the thermometer plunged to about zero.
Winfield was also a father. His sister said he had 12 children spread across four states.
Considered Vulnerable, But Not Vulnerable Enough
Winfield was among nearly 1,200 other homeless Louisville residents who last year took part in a common assessment program that aims to find permanent housing for the city’s most vulnerable residents.
Men and women in the assessment are asked a series of questions in effort to determine how likely it is for them to die on the street. Residents receive a score from 1-20 and a score of 10 or above makes an individual eligible for a housing voucher, said Mary Frances Schafer, director of community coordination for Coalition for the Homeless.
Maria Price, the executive director of the St John Center for Men, said Kenny “was considered vulnerable” following his assessment, but others, like Alvin Cooper, were considered for housing first.
Cooper said he scored a 16 on his common assessment and after nearly 14 years on the street he now has an apartment.
Despite his good fortune, Cooper wants more from the program.
“You can’t put a number on a person, a homeless person,” he said.
Schafer said there simply aren’t enough vouchers, not enough housing for everyone.
According to a quarterly report released in January, there were just 12 housing vouchers available to the homeless in Louisville for permanent housing, Schafer noted.
“The biggest reason for homelessness is a lack of resources,” she said.
Winfield’s sister learned of her brother’s death by watching television news.
“It just made me go crazy,” she said. Her last conversation with him was two weeks earlier. He told her he was going to stop by her house. He never showed.
Today, she wonders how long it would take for her brother to be considered for permanent housing. And if given the option, would the stubborn 49-year-old, take it?
Arleathiea Winfield hopes his death will be a wake-up call to the public. More resources are needed for the homeless community, she said.
“It might be a blessing, he might be singing praise right now, that it took his life to help everybody else that’s homeless and suffering out here,” she said.
For the once-homeless Cooper, his friend’s death will forever sting.
“I love him,” Cooper said. “I’m going to miss him to death.”