By BRADEN LAMMERS
As a handful of people were being handed meals out of the back of a repurposed ambulance, another dozen walked from about a quarter-mile away where they had been waiting for food.
They used to know exactly where they were going to get their next meal, because it was the same place every evening.
But now, because of the Ohio River Bridges Project, the homeless encampments at exit 0 have been pushed farther north, and outreach efforts are searching for a new location where they can provide the homeless with daily necessities. It’s one of the many issues homeless advocates, project managers and elected officials are facing as they try to address the impact of the bridge project on homelessness.
“We understand that there’s construction coming through, but to find out these camps over [to] 10th Street are going to be wiped out in less than four days, someone knew something that could have prepared us,” said Paul Stensrud, founder of Jesus Cares at Exit 0, a homeless outreach organization.
It was no surprise that the Ohio River Bridges Project was coming and that it would affect the homeless camps under the viaducts along Interstate 65. But, Stensrud said, while bridge planners have been in contact with him, it was after construction crews had already removed some of the camps and new policies set up in Jeffersonville to protect the homeless were not followed.
At a meeting on Thursday, it was agreed that project managers or a member of the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet would contact a representative of the Jeffersonville Homeless Task Force about any issues regarding the homeless population and not deal with the homeless directly.
WHERE’S THE NEXT MEAL?
Stensrud and Exit 0 volunteers had long-established that they would serve meals at the same place near the Court Avenue exit. With the ongoing construction and the need to relocate, Stensrud, the volunteers and exit 0’s homeless are looking for a place where they can get their next meal.
“There is a need for our community here, it’s not a want,” he said. “People have to eat.”
Roy White, who has been homeless for five years, was waiting at the former dialysis center off Broadway Street near exit 0 for Stensrud and the volunteers for meals on Tuesday. Along with him were about a dozen other people, including a mother and daughter who said they walked over from Louisville for a meal and another homeless man who said he walked two hours from New Albany.
But Stensrud was setting up about a quarter-mile down the road, feeding a handful of people under an overpass off Seventh Street.
Tuesday night he had about 75 meals with him. He said on average the group hands out 50 to 75 meals a day. Annually, Exit 0 hands out 2,200 meals a year. And with no specific place to set up, the organization has been forced to locate wherever they can.
“We’ll go mobile, it’s going to hurt us,” Stensrud said.
Exit 0 has funding of about $1,200 per month and it costs about $35 a day to keep a converted ambulance the group uses to deliver the meals running, according to Stensrud.
“We’re going to do what we’ve got to do to keep these guys alive,” he said. “Not to enable, to keep them alive.”
And for many people, the meals bridge a gap while they are trying to get themselves back up on their feet.
“The meal that we serve, they come here because that saves them $15 a day,” Stensrud said. “If you go to the soup kitchen you eat at Exit 0, now they have that extra money they can put towards their bills, towards their rent, towards their medication. Now, with the meals being gone, what’s going to happen? Medication is going to get cut first because it’s medicine or food.”
The money that Tracie Allison, who came to the truck for a meal Tuesday, is saving is invaluable.
“I’m trying, I just need a little help,” she said.
Allison said she is homeless, living in a tent on a family member’s lot. But she has also been working third-shift at Amazon’s fulfillment center. The former nurse ran into some legal trouble and is working at the warehouse until she can get the issues straightened out. But because she has a job and does not meet the income guidelines, and has also received assistance within the last six months, she said she is no longer eligible for aid from Jeffersonville’s trustee.
While Allison is trying to raise the money to get a deposit for an apartment, she is forced to live in the tent.
“If I could get a place to live I would be OK,” she said.
David M. LaTouche, a regular volunteer with Exit 0 said he knows what it’s like to try and get over that hurdle. He said he was homeless off-and-on for five years.
“I know what the homeless have to go through and it’s not easy at all,” he said.
And the time he spent out on the streets he said worry was his biggest concern. He was worried about his surroundings and worried that at night when he went to sleep, he may not wake up.
While Stensrud acknowledged the effort moving forward through Jeffersonville’s Homeless Task Force, of which he is a member, the $30,000 [$15,000 from the Redevelopment Commission and $15,000 from the City County] the city will use to hire a consultant is overlooking a major need.
“What about the immediate need right now?” Stensrud asked. “Where are they going to go? The shelter’s full.”
NO ANSWER FOR HOMELESSNESS
Confronted with the question of where to go, the homeless are also at a loss.
“Where am I going? I don’t know,” White said. “They come to you and say, ‘you’ve got to go.’ Go where?”
He and others that have been living along the interstate are getting frustrated about being pushed out.
“I’m going to figure out a place to go and if they come over there and try and run me off again it’s going to be all bad, it’s going to be a fight,” he said.
The prospect of getting into housing is also daunting. While White said he doesn’t drink or use drugs, he does rely on prescription medication for his schizophrenia. He also has a leg that has been severely injured and said he has been denied disability three times. White said he has been working with Stensrud to try and collect a disability check, but it might be as long as nine months before he gets an answer and the payments come through.
“If I don’t get that, I’m going to be in the same place I am now,” White said.
The cycle of frustration continues for those that are homeless as several said they feel like they are constantly harassed or denigrated by police.
“The cops won’t leave us alone,” White said. “We could be walking down the street and they’ll ask us where we’re going. We’d be walking through Thornton’s parking lot —’oh, where are you going, you’re not supposed to be on here, you’re homeless.’ So what? That’s all I want, that’s all I ask for —leave me alone.”
When asked what kind of help local entities could provide, White said just a little work.
“All the city’s got to do is, the people out here that can work, all this trash on the road and stuff —give them a job, pick it up,” he said. “Pay them minimum wage and give them a job picking it up.”
Stensrud said housing is the answer, but there’s a back log. And with the recent notice given to tenants of Rose Hill Residences, which is being converted into a mixed-use development, he feels the situation may get worse.
“They’re going to be back in their cars,” he said.
Stensrud is also reaching a tipping point with the areas homeless situation.
“It’s not our issue,” he said. “It’s the government, it’s the city, community, it is everybody’s issue not just one particular organization. It’s not the churches issue. I’m fed up.”
A PLAN WAS IN PLACE
Organizers had a plan in place to ensure they would be able to continue to provide meals to the homeless, but it did not get approved.
“We wanted the council to zone a building for us so we wouldn’t have this issue,” Stensrud said. “We knew a bridge was coming through [and] that was our plan. But the city says a day shelter isn’t the [answer] for this area. We’re trying to do the right thing and communicate with [Mayor] Mike [Moore] saying, look, you’re giving away properties to museums, you’re giving away properties for art and stuff like that. Dude, I just need a parking lot. Basically, I’m told if you’re looking for a blessing you’re not going to get it from me.”
But Moore said he was under the impression that the task force had advised him that a site had potentially been identified that could be used as a day shelter and to distribute meals. Attempts to confirm a site had been identified late Thursday were unsuccessful.
Thomas Steinberger, director of the food pantry at Harvest Chapel Church, said that previously the J and J Video building was identified as a place that could house a day center.
However, a zoning request to allow the space to be used for a shelter was not approved.
Connie Sellers, City Council president and a member of Jeffersonville’s Plan Commission, said the zoning request was denied for two reasons. She said the residents who lived in that area did not want it and the area was part of an area targeted for redevelopment.
“I don’t think it is a good place for it because we’re trying to develop that area,” she said.
When asked if there was another area in the city that could be used as a day shelter she said she is waiting on recommendation of the task force.
“That’s why we gave them $15,000,” she said.
Steinberger was not optimistic about the prospect of finding a different location to set up a shelter.
“The problem is we can’t move anywhere because Jeffersonville has a NIBY (not in my back yard) factor,” he said. “It just seems like the homeless are on the back burner and nobody gives a care about them.”
He said the situation is even more complicated because homeless people don’t trust others because of the way they’ve been treated and they are trying to fight the negative perception of homelessness.
“You’ve got to find an area where the people are accessible,” Steinberger said. “You‘ve got to be able to have a place where they can have access to public transportation and access to a computer to find a job ... they’ve got nowhere to go. It’s a situation that everybody wants to turn their back on.”