September 15, 2021

Homelessness in Kentucky Part 1: It Starts with Home

Register for the KLC Virtual Homelessness Summit: Housing and Hope, November 9 

Whether it is readily noticeable or not, homelessness impacts every community in Kentucky. Professionals in social services and affordable housing believe that city and other leaders must be part of any local solution. Based on requests from members, KLC began work in 2020 on a new long-term initiative around homelessness and affordable housing in our communities. 

Homelessness is a commonwealth issue – urban, suburban, and rural, and Kentucky is like many other states when it comes to our unhoused population – it’s a mix. 

So, what is the city’s role regarding homelessness? The first step is recognizing and acknowledging the problem and understanding basic needs for people who are housing insecure. It is also critical that leaders understand the crisis in affordable housing. City leaders are solutions driven. At the same time, cities must be practical, visionary, and creative. But the good news that there are resources. 

Professionals in the homeless/social services sectors encourage city leaders to act. One Kentucky professional said, “It has been my experience that if elected leadership doesn’t care, nothing really is impactful over a long period of time and the system doesn’t change.” Continued progress is needed and is possible when people and organizations work to make a difference.

When you look at data, it is deceiving because it is disjointed. There is no one place to go to look at homelessness holistically. 

As of January 2020 (most recent data), Kentucky had an estimated 4,011 people experiencing homelessness on any given day, as reported by Continuums of Care to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Of that total, 277 were family households, 399 were veterans, 221 were unaccompanied young adults (aged 18-24), and 666 were individuals experiencing chronic homelessness.

Public school data reported to the U.S. Department of Education during the 2018-2019 school year shows that an estimated 24,177 public school students experienced homelessness over the course of the year. Of that total, 2,664 students were unsheltered, 2,518 were in shelters, 966 were in hotels/motels, and 18,029 were “doubled up” (living on a couch/staying with someone else). Such housing instability can have a significant impact on a student’s ability to learn. Additionally, 1 in 14 Kentucky children under age six are homeless.

Data from the National Low-Income Housing Coalition website shows that there is a 75,000-unit shortage of affordable and available rental homes for extremely low-income renters in Kentucky, and that 66% of these renters have a severe cost burden. Go here to see affordable home availability in your zip code. 

It is notable that many individuals/households with full-time jobs (including city employees) qualify for housing programs and many more are already housing insecure with only “one paycheck away” from becoming homeless.

There are a number of traumatic life events that may suddenly, or over time, result in the loss of stable housing. It could be the loss of a job, medical bills, a divorce, domestic violence, a sudden change in mental health, or increased physical disability needs. Truly, any event can cause an individual and/or family to become homeless. It can even be a small event that rippled into a series of events that without the correct supportive services, led to becoming unhoused.

For some perspective, poverty guidelines are released by the U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) for all 48 contiguous states. The 2021 guidelines note that the guideline for one person is $12,880, for a household of four is $26,500, and for a household of eight is $44,660. You often see references such as “120% of poverty level” which are based on these rates. These guidelines are released each January by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and are used to determine financial eligibility for certain federal programs including housing assistance. There are also poverty thresholds, which are different.

Housing and Urban Development (HUD) generally defines “affordable” as housing on which the occupant is paying no more than 30 percent of gross income for housing costs, including utilities.

Housing and services work in tandem. Many successful programs in Kentucky and across the nation serve those experiencing homelessness with a model that seeks to house first, followed by individualized supportive services to maintain housing. This can be referred to as “recovery in place.” Think of it in basic terms – before a person can thrive, he or she needs a place to sleep, eat, bathe, go to the bathroom, and rest. The goal is to provide a stable and safe environment, removing the stress of being unhoused, before engaging in any type of services. Self-sufficiency is always the end goal, but all individuals are unique, and some may need continuous support for the rest of their lives.

There is a lot to learn and there are hundreds of programs in Kentucky that can make the situation better for our unhoused. And there are developers and housing programs that can build affordable housing. The KLC Virtual Homelessness Summit will be the first educational event specifically designed to help city and community leaders better understand the landscape. 

Thriving communities need enough housing that is affordable and equitably available to people across a full range of incomes—from young adults just starting out to seniors who want to spend their remaining years feeling secure. City leaders can work with other community stakeholders. Knowledge is the key to getting started. 

Another homeless services professional stated that, “Local government leadership is essential to addressing any community issue. Homelessness is no different. Local government leaders are uniquely qualified to consider issues from a holistic perspective and to leverage resources others cannot.”