New location for Emergency Shelter of Northern Kentucky a ‘big step’ in addressing homelessness

Allegra Thatcher, Assistant Editor.

After 12 years, Emergency Shelter of Northern Kentucky (ESNKY) announced Jan. 8 in conjunction with Kenton County and St. Elizabeth Healthcare that it will be opening doors to a new location in Covington to better assist the homeless.

St. Elizabeth purchased the new property, located at 436 West 13th St., on Dec. 10, 2019, from Steffen’s Tool Rental. St. Elizabeth, which had been providing an urgent care center in ESNKY for the last year, then transferred ownership to Kenton County Dec. 31, which will be operating the shelter under an agreement with ESNKY.

It’s been a long road for ESNKY since it began operating out of Scott Street in 2008. The current location, an old health center, was always meant to be temporary, according to Kim Webb, executive director.

The need for a more appropriate building became apparent this winter. With stricter enforcement of fire codes and occupancy laws, October saw a drastic reduction in the facility’s ability to provide shelter for people experiencing homelessness. While in previous winters ESNKY could shelter 75 guests, new code enforcement allows for only 32. Mrs. Webb said she hoped they would get an allowance because the fire board gives local jurisdictions the ability to make exceptions.

“We were the place the police could bring someone all hours of the night,” she explained. Unfortunately, the exception was not granted and this winter has been a strain on the center.

The new location will drastically improve the way the center operates. Geographically, it’s closer to the hospital, the Kenton County Government Center, the new Parish Kitchen and the Career Vocational Center. It is also still on a bus line.

Internally, Mrs. Webb said it’s like having an open canvas to design.

“A building’s size doesn’t make it large or small. Our building here is larger than it seems because it’s so cut up.”

Community donated supplies, beds and non-commercial blankets will make a new home for the center’s guests, designed to suit its purpose with 24-hour sheltering during extreme temperatures, daytime operations like shower and laundry facilities, a kitchen and space for community partners. Instead of one shower, one washer and one dryer for up to 81 guests on a cold night, the new space can be developed to better meet the needs of the community.

There will also be rooms for counseling, mental health services, career coaching and more thorough health services through St. Elizabeth Healthcare.

Mrs. Webb said she hopes the new center will be open in time for next winter.

“We’re going to use this (the current) space this winter and for our summer operations until we get the building designed and ready to go by late 2020, November or December,” she said.

Until then, ESNKY will continue to send overflow guests to places such as the Salvation Army and local churches, like Mother of God in downtown Covington.

Mrs. Webb said the shelter truly couldn’t operate without support and leadership from the community, and the will of everyone involved.

About ESNKY’s new home, Bishop Roger Foys said, “In this day and age we too often forget those who are not as fortunate as many people and who have need of something as important as the Emergency Shelter. The Emergency Shelter is a blessing to our community and I am so grateful to all those who in any way have helped to find a new home for it.”

For Mrs. Webb, it’s simply a matter of human dignity. “I try to look at their situation as if I were in it. What would it look like if I were in that neighborhood? What would I want to see? Then I’ll work hard to alleviate those fears and anxieties.”

“Everybody deserves to have a bed to sleep in,” she said.

Kenton County Judge/Executive Kris Knochelmann has been the driving political force behind the new location. He was thrilled that all parties were finally able to come together and accomplish a long-time goal.

“They’re already offering many of these services but they just don’t have the space,” he said. “Once you have the space, then you can start inviting partners in to meet with guests and clients and get them help.”

Mr. Knochelmann sees it as a huge step for bolstering a thriving working population.

“We’ve got all the pieces in the region,” he said. “With the new shelter location, they can kind of be a navigating point.”

He cited a report begun a year and a half ago on the homeless population in Northern Kentucky. Agencies partnered with the state and various cities to gather information.

For the first time, data collected proves that “it’s not a Covington problem, not a joblessness problem,” said Mr. Knochelmann. He instead referenced a region-wide issue that won’t just disappear overnight. “All that data filled into a willingness to say ‘okay, let’s not keep talking a circle around the edges of this issue, let’s actually move forward.’ And this is the first big step.”

He doesn’t want the action to stop here, with the new emergency shelter building. In the story of homelessness, this is just one victory and he intends to keep driving forward discussion for solutions.

“It opens up the bigger discussion around what are we doing in Northern Kentucky to effectively impact the immediate homeless population and do this long term,” he said.