The changing face of homelessness

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE)  - A WAVE 3 News investigation found far more people living on the streets in the brutal winter weather than many Louisvillians imagined, and hundreds of them have surprising backgrounds.

A lot of high school and college graduates were trying to survive on the streets and in the woods over the weekend when wind chill temperatures dropped into the single digits.

WAVE 3 spent time with some of the homeless to get their perspective on a problem that's changing, killing people and affecting everyone in the community in unexpected ways.

Michael Mullins, a homeless inmate, said, "Even though I'm incarcerated, and I got six months to spend here, I haven't fretted a minute. I thank God I'm here."

Who thanks God for a six-month jail sentence? Someone who used to live on a muddy mattress, below a big billboard. A busted camper shell provided him a canopy bed for the rain and snow.

Mullins said, "Some nights I stayed out it was 20 degrees. I had ten blankets to bundle up with. There was times when I felt like things were hopeless. Entirely hopeless. A lot of times I relied on God in my desperation."

On a bitter January night, Mullins burst into a vacant home, lit a candle and tried to get warm. Then the man with no home accidentally burned down two homes.

Fire means survival for the hundreds of homeless who insist on living outside, even on a freezing February night when the sky is spitting sleet.

A homeless man who asked not to be named said, "I guarantee you you'll see me on my bike next week with a five-gallon bucket on my bike, junking, making money. I can't find a job nowhere so I gotta do something. I gotta survive."

Another homeless man said, "This sleeping bag is a beast. I survive with a lot of propane. As you can see, my crate there is full of empty propane tanks."

But we found others who were really suffering. A homeless man named Tom had a makeshift shack that won't seal up, and his uncovered clothes were damp.

"I need clothes bad," he said. "I don't have no way of getting them."

He grabs every item offered by Wayside Mission, one of many Christian outreach groups visiting local homeless camps, on an almost nightly basis.

Some of the homeless had nothing. Some had state-of-the-art camping equipment. All of them had a lesson to share in how they got to this point in life.

"Somebody introduced me to crack cocaine," one said. "I gave it all up for another hit of crack cocaine. Walked away from a 250-thousand-dollar home, my own truck, custom cars… just walked away from it."

Bill Hulsey, who volunteers with Wayside Mission's Samaritan Patrol, said, "There's so many problems. You can't really stereotype one individual or group. Some are just victims of the system. Some have made maybe one more mistake than we have in our lives."

A recent survey of 244 chronically homeless people living on the streets in Louisville found:

  • 51% have graduated college, high school or have a GED
  • 46% suffer from substance abuse or mental health issues
  • 20% are veterans
  • 52% are from Metro Louisville
  • they accounted for 475 emergency room visits in the last three months
  • they logged 231 hospital stays over the past year.

"I had to go to two places to see a couple different doctors," Tom said. "Hospital gave me a couple prescriptions. I can't stand too long and can't bend over too much because I'm in a lot of pain. It's killing me."

But it's not enough to get him or any of the others we met into one of the many local homeless shelters.

Tom said, "I won't go in them."

Another said, "to be frankly honest, I just don't care for the big crowds of people. If I don't like somebody, I can always just move."

They all have one more thing in common. They've all given up. You won't find hope in the homeless camps.

One homeless man who did not want to be identified said, "You get to thinking about it, it's just like, why even try, why get up out of here. You're gonna be back."

While many of the chronically homeless refuse to go to the shelters, very few of them are not interested in moving into some other kind of housing. Phoenix Health Center and its partners are now in the process of getting housing for 75 of the people surveyed who were ranked as most likely to die. It's too late for one of them who died on January 1.

Copyright 2012 WAVE News. All rights reserved.