On the coldest night of Louisville’s sub-zero deep freeze last Thursday, Kenneth Winfield — a 49-year old man who had been chronically homeless for nearly a decade — was found unresponsive on the steps of the St. John Center for Homeless Men; he later died at University Hospital.
Winfield’s tragic death has highlighted the importance of efforts by local groups to find and direct the chronically homeless to shelters in brutally cold weather, but also renewed calls by housing advocates to push Metro Government to follow through on a nearly decade-old promise: to find a $10 million stream of dedicated public funding to be directed to the Louisville Affordable Housing Trust Fund.
At a press conference last Friday to give an update on road and weather conditions, Mayor Greg Fischer called for a moment of silence for Winfield after noting that “an autopsy is pending, so we don’t really know exactly what his cause of death was.” Asked what he can do to prevent such tragedies in the future, Fischer added that Winfield would have found space if he had gone to Wayside Christian Mission’s shelter two blocks away from the St. John Center, and that LMPD officers look out for the homeless when out on patrol in such weather.
“We’ll continue to work on that,” said Fischer. “I know I speak for the Coalition (for the Homeless) when I say that we work on it constantly here. We have a good team and we’ll keep on that.”
On Monday, Jefferson County Coroner Barbara Weakly-Jones told Insider Louisville that while the exact cause of Winfield’s death won’t be known for another four to six weeks when toxicology results come back, “his death was likely associated in some way with environmental factors,” referring to the sub-zero temperature.
Natalie Harris, the executive director of Louisville’s Coalition for the Homeless, also spoke at Friday’s presser, choking up when noting that Winfield had been living in Louisville shelters and on the streets since 2007.
“During most of that time he was invisible to most of us, because he was homeless,” said Harris. “I think it’s important to realize that he was somebody’s boyfriend, he was someone’s son, and he was all of our neighbor.”
Harris thanked the four outreach teams of Seven Counties Services, Wayside, the VA Medical Center and the YMCA, who have been out looking for the homeless to bring them to shelters during the cold weather, asking people to donate, volunteer, and “advocate for more affordable housing so that our neighbors don’t have to be on the streets.”
Harris told Insider Louisville that for the past month, Wayside has been the only shelter that is not consistently full, saying that some of the homeless have had to be turned away and directed there. She says the lack of affordable housing — largely due to dramatic cuts to the federal housing budget in recent years — is why such a problem is so hard to overcome.
“The community is doing a great job now of prioritizing housing for people in the greatest need, but there’s not enough,” said Harris. “So people who are still really in need are not getting to the top of that list. We know he’d been out there since at least 2007. (Winfield) had been hitting the system since 2007. So let’s hope that we can get some more permanent housing to get people off the streets.”
Maria Price, the executive director of the St. John Center, told IL that staff had known Winfield well over the last four years, remembering him as a kind and friendly man with “great dimples.” She recounted Winfield telling her last November that he didn’t want to die out in the cold streets and was seeking help to find a home. Winfield, who struggled with mental illness and substance abuse, applied for a federal supportive housing program but was denied. The reason was that he was not considered vulnerable enough to qualify, an increasingly common fate for applicants in need with dwindling federal funding for such support.
“Every time for the last few decades when we have cut HUD funding to Section 8 housing, which provides housing for low income people, we make the problem worse,” said Price. “And we will continue to see this problem until we change our priorities. And the fact is, as long as housing is a for-profit industry in this country, we are going to need some government assistance to help fill in the gap for people who can’t afford the housing that is available.”
Price said that while they used to have more flexible supportive housing grants from HUD for people like Winfield — including ongoing case management for those with mental health, physical health and substance abuse issues — with less money, “what was an eligible expense then is not now, and it’s just a way to deal with budget cuts.”
With federal money decreasing, Price added, Louisville’s government should step up and find more city revenue for the Louisville Affordable Housing Trust Fund.
However, housing advocates have been singing that tune for nearly a decade in Louisville, with very little action from Metro Government. Even though the 2006 Affordable Housing Task Force recommended a $10 million revenue stream to be dedicated annually to the LAHTF — by enacting a 1 percent tax increase on insurance premiums — and Metro Council nearly unanimously voted to create the trust fund, the tax/revenue proposal has gone nowhere.
Though Metro Council recently lost two members who were the biggest advocates of enacting a dedicated revenue stream for LAHTF — Attica Scott and Tina Ward-Pugh — Harris is still hopeful the council will act sooner rather than later.
“We’re hoping that this year before the budget process starts that we can get funding for the AHTF,” said Harris. “It would be really, really helpful to start getting us where we need to go … truthfully, though, that’s not even enough for the need that we have.”
In The Courier-Journal on Monday, new Councilman Bill Hollander, D-9, penned an op-ed citing Winfield’s death as a call to action for Louisville to finally dedicate revenue to the LAHTF, as 3,320 applicants are on the Louisville Metro Housing Authority’s waiting list for public housing units, 17,846 more are waiting for a housing voucher, and 6,846 JCPS students are homeless.
“With no dedicated funding source, the total funds available to LAHTF haven’t reached even close to $10 million over the past 7 years, much less the $10 million annually that would begin to solve our housing problems,” wrote Hollander. “With that in mind, the seniors, people with disabilities, families, veterans and individuals who are waiting for housing deserve a full discussion of how to fully fund the trust fund each year.”
Asked by IL if there is any movement within Metro Council on finding dedicated funding for the LAHTF, Hollander said there are a number of members who are supportive, but he does not expect to see any action before this year’s budget is finalized. This is partly due to new council membership not having enough time to dig into the issue yet, and also reticence among some members to increase taxes in order to fund it.
“We just have to figure out a way to get the most support for that and to continue to talk about the need and the relatively limited options for coming up with that money,” said Hollander, adding that Fischer has not to his knowledge reached out to council members on this issue recently.
Asked if the mayor’s office has recently lobbied any council members to raise the insurance premium tax by 1 percent and direct the revenue toward funding the LAHTF — and whether he would he support such a hypothetical ordinance — spokesman Chris Poynter replied that “there have been no recent discussions about this matter. This legislation would have to start with and be passed by Metro Council.”
*An earlier version of this story said that St. John Center was full on Thursday night. The shelter actually is only open from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.