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WKYT Investigates | Homelessness expected to worsen before it gets better, experts warn

Rising rent and an affordable housing shortage are among the factors that worry advocates.
Rising rent and an affordable housing shortage are among the factors that worry advocates.
Updated: May. 19, 2022 at 4:00 PM EDT
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FRANKFORT, Ky. (WKYT) - The tent is coming down.

In a small clearing along the river, James Osborne and Tina Shanahan are untying knots, removing tarps and packing up.

“It took me over three days to actually get it to where it’d be rain-tight,” Osborne said of his efforts. “And now, I’ve got to come back through here and take it all back down.”

Despite what it looks like, this is not the end of a camping trip.

It’s Moving Day.

Again.

“I’ve got to move this somewhere, and I don’t know where I’m moving it to,” Osborne said.

He paused, thinking.

“I just don’t know where we’re going from here.”

Osborne and Shanahan had lived here for weeks, the couple said, trying to blend in among the trees and shrubs that stand just yards away from runners and walkers on Frankfort’s River View Trail.

On the chilly early-spring day when they gathered their things to leave, it was easy to see how quickly homelessness can turn into hopelessness.

“It’s scary, too,” said Shanahan, starting to cry.

What Osborne and Shanahan described as rough waters before the pandemic soon capsized the couple’s lives in some ways during it, they said. They sought help from family, friends and outside organizations. They surfed couches.

But the whole ordeal eventually landed them here, in a makeshift campsite on a stranger’s private property along the Kentucky River.

“I’m doing everything I know to possibly try to get up out of the situation that we’re in,” Osborne said. “Everywhere I turn, it’s like a door closed.”

As of January 2020, Kentucky had roughly 4,011 people experiencing homelessness on any given day, the most recent federal statistics estimate. And that was before the pandemic.

Now, a confluence of factors has advocates bracing for the possibility that many more could find themselves in similar situations.

“Here we are,” Ginny Ramsey, director of Lexington’s Catholic Action Center, told WKYT’s Garrett Wymer. “It’s almost like the perfect storm.”

Ramsey has seen a lot in the 22 years since she co-founded an organization that works to help the homeless.

“We’ve lived through a lot of the ups and downs of the economy, a lot of the challenges,” she said. “A lot, over the years.”

And yet: “We’ve never seen it as possibly unnerving as it is now.”

Even the closed doors James Osborne says he has faced are too few in number, experts said.

Kentucky has a shortage of 78,559 rental homes for extremely low-income households, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. There are just 54 affordable and available rental homes per 100 extreme low-income renter households, their data shows - better than a vast majority of other states, ranging from 18 to 61, but still leaving many without.

Ramsey cites the scarcity of affordable housing, along with rising rent costs and looming evictions postponed during the pandemic, plus higher prices for groceries and gas, as reasons she expects the problem to get worse before it gets better.

Roughly 62% of extremely low-income renter households in Kentucky are severely cost-burdened, meaning they spend more than half of their income on housing, the NLIHC says. That almost certainly will climb.

Monthly rents skyrocketed across the country in 2021, according to analysts with Apartment List. Rising rates are slowing, their data shows, but they do continue to increase.

Median rents in Lexington currently stand at $911 for a one-bedroom apartment and $1,124 for a two-bedroom apartment, their latest rent report states. That is an increase of 1.5% month-over-month in April, compared to an increase of 0.9% nationally.

“The cycle of poverty is expanding to some people who were making it before the pandemic, but won’t be able to make it now,” Ramsey said.

And, despite misconceptions, homelessness is not just a city problem confined to Lexington or Louisville, she said. It is spilling over even more into smaller surrounding communities like Georgetown, Richmond, Winchester - and Frankfort.

James Osborne and Tina Shanahan know they are not alone.

They realize others face the same fate. In fact, it is why Osborne said he reached out to WKYT in the first place, hoping to share his story to raise awareness about what they deal with.

And their plight becomes more pressing by the day.

Because there’s another reason they know they are not alone - even beyond their adopted puppy, Daisy, who, like them, was living on the streets.

No, Osborne and Shanahan are not alone.

“I am 17 weeks pregnant,” Shanahan said, a worry that keeps Osborne up at night, she said.

The couple has struggled to get the help they need from other organizations, they said; they have gotten caught in cycles of paperwork, delays, long waitlists, frustrations and suggestions that the two separate to find housing more easily.

Meanwhile, they know what people think of them.

“Not knowing us... You know what some people see?” Osborne said. “You’re worthless. You don’t want to help yourself. You’re a drug addict. You’re just trying to skim through life and not do nothing.”

But the reality is much more complicated than any stereotype, Shanahan said.

“If you fall down that hill, it’s so much harder to get back up. Because it’s muddy, it’s slippery,” she said. “That’s like life. And it’s just hard to climb your way out of a mud hole.”

After this, the conversation ends. There is work to do - and a 1.5-mile walk to take to a nearby soup kitchen for lunch.

And as they scramble up the hill referenced just moments before as a metaphor for their current situation - Osborne and Daisy first, Shanahan right behind - near the top of the incline Shanahan reaches out.

She just needed a hand up to make it.

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