COVINGTON, Ky. -- The Emergency Shelter of Northern Kentucky opened Thursday for its 10th winter in a location that can barely keep pace with the number of people who need somewhere to sleep on the year's coldest nights.
The nonprofit served 589 adults experiencing homelessness during a 2017 winter that included 17 days of 24-hour sheltering, said executive director Kim Webb. Nine of those days were consecutive, which added further strain to the shelter building, staff and volunteers.
"The fact that we do this with one shower, with one women's bathroom," Webb said. "Are we OK as a community to say it's OK to have someone sleeping on the floor?"
People sleep on yoga mats on the floor, lined up throughout the shelter's hallways, when the building's 75 beds are full.
"I remember one night here, I was in my office. It was late. We were on overflow, and there was a lady outside my office on a yoga mat," Webb said. "That lady had a great spot because there's an outlet for her phone. She cried, and she called everybody she knew to pick her up, saying, 'I'll be good. I'll be fine here. It's just so noisy.'"
Webb waited until it was quiet to leave her office. When she opened her office door, the mat was there but the woman was gone.
"It was awful," Webb said. "For me in 2018, how is this OK?"
Even more frustrating for Webb: She has more than $1 million in a capital campaign account that she is ready to spend on a permanent location for the shelter with better amenities to serve the people who need it. She and her supporters just haven't been able to find a spot that is convenient for clients where the shelter is welcome.
Business and political leaders in Northern Kentucky said something has to change.
"It's striking to me that there are shelters for animals throughout Northern Kentucky, but there's much debate about shelter for our neighbors," said Brent Cooper, president of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. "I think that's something we need to have a conversation about."
‘I see a need'
Webb said she has looked at a few different locations for the shelter within the city of Covington but hasn't been able to finalize a deal.
Covington Mayor Joe Meyer has expressed concern in the past about the concentration of poverty and social services within the city. He told WCPO that the city welcomes services that its residents need, but his understanding is that two-thirds of the people who used the cold shelter last winter were from outside Covington and Kenton County.
"The cold shelter needs to show some flexibility here, and they need to locate their services in places that are most accessible to the people who need the services," Meyer said. "We will take some of the services. We want them. But there are a lot of other people with needs, too, that don't live in Covington, and they should be just as entitled to services."
Cooper owns a business just a few blocks from the shelter's current Scott Street location.
"I've never noticed a problem, and it's a service that's needed," he said. "I look at the big picture, and I see a need. And I think we have to find a way to address that need. It's not my place to say how, but I think it is our role to encourage everyone to come together to find solutions to the problem."
Kenton County owns the building where the shelter is currently located, and county officials have committed to letting the shelter stay there until a permanent location is identified.
Kenton County Judge Executive Kris Knochlemann said he supports the county helping the shelter find a new location, whether that involves helping the shelter acquire it or negotiating with property owners.
"Nobody really wants to have that kind of facility near them, whether it be for work or their home," he said. "Some of it could be justified, but a lot more of it is just a general misunderstanding of what goes on in a shelter."
Webb said and the shelter's staff and volunteers work hard to make the facility welcoming. The shelter has a commercial washer and dryer to launder the clothes of the people who stay there along with rooms of donated clothing for those who need it.
A kitchen area is filled with boxes of cereal for breakfast, and another room with a sink and mirrors can accommodate men who want need to shave or wash up when the men's bathrooms are full.
Chris Schewe described the shelter as clean but cramped.
He's the nurse manager for St. Elizabeth Healthcare's emergency department in Covington.
Schewe knows quite a bit about the shelter because his department can send patients directly from the hospital to the shelter if they need a place to stay for the night, no questions asked.
‘They would freeze'
"We're the only emergency room down here in Covington, and we're a free-standing facility," he said. "We have a lot of homeless people that come here. A lot of them use our charging station in the lobby. They kind of use our public bathrooms. But we also see them on a medical basis."
There isn't always a medical reason to keep patients overnight, though, and Schewe said he's grateful that the emergency shelter can provide patients with a bed on freezing cold nights.
"When it gets that cold, they would freeze," he said. "It's a great resource."
As important as the shelter is for public health, it's also important for the local economy, Cooper said.
"From a business perspective, workforce is our top issue," he said. "A third of our workforce is not working, and I know you cannot get a person into training and into a job if they don't have a place to lay their head down at night."
The emergency shelter works to connect people with the help they need to get back on their feet, Webb said.
Some of the people who stay there are chronically homeless, she said. However, many others are down on their luck, lost their housing and need a place to stay until they can get back on track, she said.
"You really have to have that bed before you can really do anything for someone," she said.
Webb, her staff and volunteers will spend the day preparing to do just that: cleaning up, making the beds, creating a meal calendar and working to collect the donations the shelter needs to get through the winter.
The organization gets 95 percent of its funding from private donations, she said, and operates on an annual budget of just about $423,000.
"We do a whole lot with a whole little," she said. "It's time for us to have a permanent home."
Go to the Emergency Shelter of Northern Kentucky's website for more information about the shelter and how you can help.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region -- to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To read more stories about poverty, go to www.wcpo.com/poverty .