LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WHAS11) — As city officials discuss opening a low-barrier shelter in Metro Louisville to combat the community’s growing homeless issue, several are left wondering what low-barrier shelters would look like or how they would operate.
While Louisville and surrounding communities have no similar shelters in place, another city along the Ohio River has had low-barrier shelter since the 1970s.
Shelterhouse, a low-barrier shelter with fewer rules and obstacles for its homeless population, only has two rules.
"The rules are that you just cannot harm yourself or others,” Executive Director Arlene Nolan said. “It’s basically as simple as that."
Shelterhouse operates at night during Cincinnati’s coldest months. Anyone from couples, pets and users can stop by the shelter anytime from December to March to sleep inside during frigid temperatures.
“It is a matter of life and death,” Nolan said. “The whole purpose is to prevent anybody experiencing homelessness from freezing to death during the winter months.”
Shelterhouse’s staff is trained in de-escalation and the shelter has NARCAN for any possible users.
"If you treat our residents with respect and dignity, 99 percent of the time the residents behave accordingly,” Nolan said. "Even if you're under the influence, as long as you're not causing harm to yourself or others…you lay intoxicated and you go to sleep."
Low-barrier shelters across the country have similar guidelines to the Shelterhouse. Some of most important descriptions of these kinds of shelters include:
- Entry for every person (or animal)
- No background checks
- Zero residency requirements
- No mandatory lifestyle or sobriety classes
- NARCAN or treatment available
Metro Councilwoman Barbara Sexton Smith’s low-barrier shelter proposal is similar to Shelterhouse. Sexton Smith said she wants a shelter that allows people with animals, families, mental illnesses or addictions, hopefully solving what she considers an emergency.
"It is an emergency, and I look at it just like that – just as if it were the ‘74 tornado,” Sexton Smith said. “We have 774 people in shelter in our community. Maybe 150 won't go inside, but the others will.”
City Councilman Bill Hollander said he agrees with Sexton Smith.
"We're not reinventing the wheel here,” Hollander said. “We know what we need to do, and we need to move forward with that. We need to move forward with that with a sense of urgency.”
The city of Cincinnati helps fund Shelterhouse and the building of new facilities, and city council will vote on whether Louisville should do the same. The mayor’s office called the issue “complex,” not giving any indication on if they are ready to commit, but Sexton Smith said the money is in the budget.
“The opportunity to do this came to light just in the last couple of weeks when the administration brought the audit from [the] fiscal year 2018 budget and there's $600,000 in surplus funding,” Sexton Smith said.
While the city council’s vote is unknown, Nolan said a low-barrier shelter with trained employees will save lives and help those in need – something any city should want to do.
"It’s absolutely essential that a city take care of people that need help," Nolan said. “The fact that we prevent someone from freezing or dying on the streets, that in my mind, success."
Residents at the Shelterhouse are also given a choice to get treatment or find housing, helping them not only stay warm but allowing them the opportunity to change their lifestyle.
"There are people who need shelter – they need help getting out of homelessness and into housing,” Nolan said. “And that's why shelters like us exist, and we are very proud to operate in the ways we do."