24 hours in the life of the homeless: ‘They don’t know the power they’ve got in their lives’

Published: Feb. 14, 2019 at 10:19 AM EST
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LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - There isn’t a lot color in the homeless world.

On Jan. 30, there was a lot of white.

At sunrise, the wind chill temperature had dropped to 20 below. The coldest day in decades in Louisville.

Inside a tent in the woods off Lexington Road, a woman named Ginger was painting her nails.

“I never knew about homelessness really,” Ginger said. “I’ve always been spoiled.”

It wasn’t a big deal for her boyfriend Jonas, who was raised Mennonite.

“We didn’t have no electricity,” Jonas said. “No house where you could flip the switch, turn the thing on for warmer or colder.”

"I left society two years ago because of a lot of things going on with the court system,” Ginger said. “This is teaching me how to keep the struggle right here so I’m never taking one day or one second for granted.”

It was too cold for the two dogs and cat to fight, or even move.

Heated by propane, next to plenty of food, Jonas and Ginger don't even have to leave to restock.

“What do you do for food?” I asked.

“Ninety-five percent of it is through the outreach people that show up out here,” Jonas said.

“How often do they show up?” I asked.

“On a daily basis,” he said. It was the opposite story across the Ohio River.

Exit Zero had set up an emergency cold weather shelter at a church, but not everyone was so kind.

Jenni(WAVE 3 News)
Kevin(WAVE 3 News)

“Whenever we do ask for help they’re like 'get a job,’” a homeless woman named Jenni said. “It’s not that simple.”

Kevin and Jenni were leaving early to walk from Jeffersonville, Indiana, to Jenni’s job in Louisville.

"This is the coldest I’ve ever had it in my life,” Jenni said.

She works 40 hours a week at a convenience store. According to National Housing Coalition figures, at minimum wage, a person would have to work 60 hours a week in Kentucky to afford the cheapest one bedroom apartment.

As the wind picked up, Kevin left her to look for a warm meal. He stopped at the Franciscan Kitchen, a place where so many homeless depend on midday food.

“They are closed because the schools are closed,” another homeless man informed Kevin. “We really needed them to be open today.”

So what now? Idle time can be dangerous for the homeless.

Two months clean, Kevin and Jenni fled Georgia where they were using and selling meth.

"I’ll stand outside and try to avoid the gang bangers and scrounge for food pretty much,” Kevin said.

When Jonas and Ginger emerged from their snowbound tent, they resumed a daily routine, going just down the road to visit friends at a large homeless encampment on railroad property with dozens of tents.

Being homeless can be boring. And frightening.

A tent caught fire at another camp not far away. A vivid illustration why many diehards were giving in and going in. So was Kevin.

Even though he and Jenni were staying in the emergency shelter in Jeffersonville for three nights, he had to check in to keep their bed in the low-barrier shelter where they have been staying in Louisville that was set up without the rules that keep many from seeking shelter.

“Reminds me of jail pretty much,” Kevin said. “In what way?” I asked. “From the fights, to narcotics,” he said. His bed was valuable.

A city of homeless was growing right outside in the subzero weather.

As the sun set, outreach groups stopped and served hot drinks. They unloaded trunks full of warm clothing to people waiting in lines. Then Kevin went back to pick up Jenni who had been dealing with lines too.

“We got backed up with customers and everybody wanted lottery,” Jenni said. “This one lady got caught drinking beer in the store. It was insane.”

Not having to go back to the chaos of the low-barrier shelter for another night felt like a vacation for Kevin and Jenni.

When you’re homeless, even with a job, there’s a lot of time to think.

Settling in again for bedtime at the Jeffersonville church, Jenni thought about her two daughters she hasn’t seen in years.

“It’s just crazy how easy things can just, you lose everything ya know?” she said.

Over in Jonas and Ginger’s tent, there was propane powered positivity. They were adding another room to their tarp-layered tent. And Ginger was going to start selling the jewelry she made out of scrap wire.

“A lot of people up under the bridge, they don’t really know the power they’ve got in their lives, because somewhere along the line care stopped,” Ginger said. “Whether it was losing your kids, losing housing, somewhere along the line something happened where respect went down the drain.”

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