Gina Stewart is the homeless coordinator for Harlan County Schools and this is her week so far:
On Wednesday, she did a home visit to a family living in a shed. Then she got a call about a family living in a house with no door or windows or running water. Then she talked to a 14-year-old girl who had been in and out of so many foster homes, some of them abusive, she was going to be sent to a residential treatment center.
“This is what happens every day, five days a week,” Stewart said. “We just try to do our best.”
In Harlan County, one in three students, more than 1,000 kids, are homeless or facing housing insecurity. They might live with a family member or couch surf with friends. Or live in a shed.
On Tuesday, Lexington got an eye-opening account of nearly 500 children who are homeless in our schools. T.C. Johnson, director of the federal McKinney Vento program for the Fayette County Public Schools, said she expects the number to climb to 900 by the end of the year.
“This is a crisis,” Johnson said.
It’s a crisis all right. In Lexington. In Harlan. And in each of our 120 counties across the state. Last year, 21,486 Kentucky children were counted as homeless, which is 3 percent of our school population and the 10th-highest rate in the country.
In Lexington, the reasons cascade into one another: a huge dearth of affordable housing in Fayette County, rising rent prices, more evictions, low wages, combined with an end to such COVID-era policies as increased food stamps, ARPA rent subsidies and the child tax credit.
Top it off with higher gas and food prices, and as Johnson told me, “If you’re already at a disadvantage, rent becomes a unworkable financial hardship.”
In Harlan, the problems started with the now decades-long opioid crisis, which destroyed families either through neglect, death or incarceration, said Superintendent Brent Roark. Then there’s the lack of any housing, much less affordable. Oh, then there is the complete lack of jobs after coal’s demise.
The problem is so severe that there are homeless coordinators in all nine schools.
“The system in Eastern Kentucky, in Harlan County is broken,” Roark said. “The district is the largest employer in Harlan. Your school district should be supplying workers for your largest industry, not hiring to be the largest industry.”
It’s a crisis that borne out of misfortune and public policy or lack thereof. The problem is so overwhelming, so enormous that it’s easier to put aside to think about for another time.
Groups like the Kentucky Youth Advocates try to break it down into bite-sized pieces so people can digest its enormity. They recently issued a study finding that one in three graduates of the foster care system faced homelessness or housing insecurity. That’s a smaller segment of 18-24-year-olds.
“We just don’t have enough housing across the state,” said Karena Cash, a senior policy analyst on economic security. Only 2.2 percent of housing in Kentucky has been built since 2010. Supply is too low and prices are too high for many, whether they are off Nicholasville Road or up a hollow in Wallins.
Kentucky is short 89,000 units of affordable housing statewide, said Adrienne Bush, executive director of the Homeless and Housing Coalition of Kentucky.
“We have to be both building and preserving more housing to meet the needs of current and future Kentuckians,” Bush said. “That requires money, and new policies around development. But the bottom line is there has to be money to build homes, that has to come from the federal government and states.
“Kentucky has traditionally not done that, but the rents skyrocketing coupled with people displaced from the disasters in Western and Eastern Kentucky means we have to think differently about how we’re doing housing. The market isn’t going to take care of itself without any intervention, from our perspective.”
Here in Lexington, Ginny Ramsey has taken action (as she often does as director of the Catholic Action Center shelter) by starting private fundraising to help Fayette parents pay for rent and security deposits so their kids can have a home.
That is wonderful. But charity is not a substitute for public policy. And, as Bush points out, the free market has done a lousy job on Kentucky’s housing problems so far.
It takes steps both big and small. It takes cities accumulating bigger pots of money to build affordable housing and bigger pots of money to house people in hotels so they can be quickly re-homed and not end up on the street. It takes better zoning that encourages infill and development.
It takes successful state and federal policy like the ARPA eviction money and the child tax credit, which halved child poverty before Congress let it expire. The child poverty rate has now more than doubled from a record low of 5.2 percent in 2021 to 12.4 percent in 2022.
That’s the macro view. Then there’s the micro view from people like Gina Stewart and T.C. Johnson, who deal with these real world realities every single day.
“These kids are so traumatized,” Stewart said. “They’re always moving around, and it’s so hard every day.”