A homeless encampment under the I-264 overpass on Jefferson Street. | Photo by Michael L. Jones

Louisville Metro Council’s Budget Committee on Thursday unanimously approved spending most of the city’s recent budget surplus on emergency services for the homeless this winter, including providing temporary storage for their belongings and temporary shelter that is considered “low barrier,” welcoming of some individuals who aren’t allowed in the city’s largest shelters.

The Fischer administration had previously indicated that it would put the $621,791 surplus into the city’s rainy day fund, but council members Barbara Sexton Smith and Bill Hollander pushed for this emergency funding because of increasing concern about Louisville’s growing homeless population this winter and the fact that some people still have no options besides sleeping out in the cold.

The committee approved $546,791 for the Office of Resilience and Community Services to be used exclusively on services for the homeless, requiring that the agency present the council with a detailed plan for how these funds would be used by Jan. 2, with a goal of implementing that plan within the following two weeks. The plan must detail and budget the services to be provided, along with the partnering organizations that will help with its implementation.

The main purpose of this funding is to fill a gap that has been identified by advocates for the homeless within the mayor’s homeless task force that was convened last year, as many of the homeless face barriers to accessing overnight shelters due to being disqualified for their past behavior or drug use, or rules that do not allow them to bring their possessions, pets and partners inside the shelters.

Not only is the agency tasked with identifying a temporary storage space for the possessions of homeless individuals — thus potentially limiting that specific barrier — but also identifying a temporary shelter this winter for individuals and families that would have low barriers to access and not turn certain types of people away.

The latter task of a low-barrier shelter — or more spread throughout the city — is the most difficult, as the city would have to find available space and trained staff to deal with individuals who are more challenging to serve than those allowed in shelters with strict requirements. The homeless task force members have come to a consensus that such low-barrier shelter beds are needed quickly, but questions remain on where they would be, what organizations could partner with the city to operate them and how much it would cost.

Noting that the funding approved Thursday is only for temporary services this winter, the budget language said that these “shall serve as a bridge to a more permanent plan to address these needs,” which must be offered to the council by April 25, when Mayor Greg Fischer is scheduled to present his proposed city budget for the next fiscal year.

At the Nov. 13 meeting of the mayor’s homeless task force, a number of advocates who do street outreach with the homeless strongly criticized the administration for dragging its feet and not acting with urgency in the face of the city’s homelessness crisis, citing the death of a homeless man who slept just outside of a shelter days earlier. Councilman Hollander, a member of the task force, shared his opinion that action needed to be taken quickly and before the scheduled recommendations of the group for next summer.

Before the committee voted to approve the additional funding on Thursday, Hollander told Insider Louisville that “many of the people on the task force thought we needed to move with more of a sense of urgency to provide more shelter — and I agree with them. I think we have that urgency now.”

In an Op-Ed on Thursday, the city’s chief resilience officer Eric Friedlander wrote that while advocates want a new low-barrier shelter: “It’s a multimillion-dollar project, and there are multiple questions to resolve before we move forward: Where should it go? How big should it be? How do you keep families with children separate from individuals with behavioral health issues? How do we fund the cost to build and staff it?”

Friedlander also mentioned the possibility of the city renting rooms for families at Hotel Louisville, which is owned and operated by Wayside Christian Mission.

However, a homeless advocate, Tiny Markwell, the founder director of the street outreach team The Forgotten Louisville, countered in a Facebook post Thursday evening that this would amount to reinvesting “in our already failing shelter system,” stating that Wayside has long enforced a high-barrier policy that turns certain homeless people away.

Markwell also voiced her concern about a potential city partnership on a low-barrier shelter with Wayside or The Healing Place — also known for enforcing high-barrier policies at their addiction treatment facilities — as their staff may not have the necessary training in harm reduction for such a population.

The Healing Place, whose recovery facilities operate using a strict abstinence-only model, will soon open what they call a new low-barrier homeless shelter for men that is a “wet shelter,” with staff only requiring clients to behave themselves.

The full Metro Council could finalize the funding at the meeting next Thursday.