When Blake Sanders and her family — husband, child and two stepchildren — had no place to stay last year, they struggled to find shelter in Lexington.
"I went to the Salvation Army, but because I don't have custody of my two stepchildren, they told me my child and I could stay at the Salvation Army but my stepchildren would have to go to Arbor Youth Services and my husband would have to go to the Hope Center," Sanders said.
A homeless advocate paid for Sanders and her family to stay in a hotel room as the city's social service network scrambled to find a solution. The Salvation Army eventually was able to house the entire family at its Main Street shelter.
Sanders was lucky. Lexington's emergency shelter system has only two units for two-parent families.
Her story is familiar to Charlie Lanter. Shortly after being named Lexington's first homeless coordinator in May 2014, Lanter's phone started ringing with urgent pleas from two-parent families.
"The women and the children can go to the Salvation Army, and the father can go to the Hope Center," Lanter said. "But once I tell people that they have to split up, they say, 'thanks but no thanks."
He doesn't know where those families wind up.
"We suspect that some are ending up living out of their cars," he said.
There's also no shelter space available in Lexington for single homeless fathers with children. Fathers must go to the Hope Center or Community Inn and leave their children at Arbor Youth Services, which houses homeless children, said Art Crosby, executive director of the Lexington Fair Housing Council.
"If you are providing housing for men over here and women over here, then there needs to be something for families with children as well," Crosby said. "We can't split them up and make them make impossible decisions in impossible situations."
Lexington lags behind other cities in its programs for homeless families.
Natalie Harris, the executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless in Louisville, a nonprofit group, said Louisville has three shelters that will house intact families or single fathers with children. Those shelters have at least 36 housing units for families that can serve more than 100 people.
Stephanie Spires, the director of advocacy and development for Arbor Youth Services, has been working with Lanter, Crosby and others to develop a solution for homeless families in Lexington. Spires said a brick-and-mortar shelter might not be the answer.
"We may need vouchers or scattered housing," Spires said. "The problem is there are not enough apartments or rental properties that will take vouchers."
Lanter said $100,000 of city money is available to start a pilot voucher program, which would allow homeless families to temporarily rent housing. A request for proposals from service providers to start a program was issued last week. Lanter said he hopes to have a program running by winter.
"It will be for two-parent families or any combination of people who present as a family — including elderly couples," Lanter said. "That's also a big need."
Crosby said the group decided to go forward with a pilot program because families are struggling now.
"Once we get the program started, I think we will begin to understand the need," Crosby said. "Just because we can't help all families doesn't mean we shouldn't help some families."
Sanders and her husband were eventually able to find an apartment in November using a housing voucher program run by Volunteers of America.
The family became homeless when her husband lost his job at a hospital in Cincinnati after missing too many days of work to take his children to doctor appointments. All three of Sanders' children have special needs. The youngest is severely autistic.
That means Sanders or her husband must remain with the children at all times, making it difficult to find employment. Sanders also has a felony on her record — theft — from when she was younger. Her criminal record has been a major barrier to finding a job and career.
"I wish there were more apartments that would take vouchers and more employers who would be willing to hire people with felonies," Sanders said. "I wish people would listen to our stories, not just what our background check says."
Lexington's homeless shelters
Salvation Army: Mainly serves homeless women and their biological children. Capacity: Two units for single fathers or fathers and mothers with children; 17 units for women and children; 50 beds for single women.
Hope Center: Houses single men and has some programs for women but does not serve families. Capacity: 214
Community Inn: Houses men and women — on separate floors — but does not serve anyone younger than 18. Capacity: 115.
Greenhouse 17: Houses women and their children who are victims of domestic violence. Capacity: 32.
Arbor Youth Services: Houses homeless children. Capacity: eight.