[by Shiela Steinman Wallace]
The pursuit of tikkun olam – a persistent quest to repair the world – has defined Marlene Gordon’s life, and 13 years ago, that pursuit led her to begin to the challenges of confronting homelessness in Louisville as executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless. “It’s very important to me that a Jewish woman leaves that kind of mark on the community, and I follow in some very big footsteps of a lot of Jewish women in Louisville who have made quite a difference in this community,” she said.
Now, with many significant achievements and the knowledge that there is much more to do, Gordon is retiring at the end of this month, leaving her own big footsteps for someone else to fill.
Not one for “a stuffy dinner with speeches, she’s inviting the entire community to join her retirement celebration. “We having a gala at Wayside’s new hotel on Sunday, April 11, from 1-4 p.m., and everybody’s invited,” she said. It will be a carnival, complete with bouncies and “all the shelters will have booths. It will be lots of fun.”
Wayside Christian Mission recently acquired the hotel at the corner of Second and Broadway, where it rents rooms to the homeless for $1 a day as it pursues the zoning changes it will need to run a shelter for the homeless there.
During her tenure with the Coalition, Gordon succeeded in changing the entire approach Louisville takes to homelessness. When she began her work, the Coalition focused its efforts on managing the problem of homelessness – ensuring that there was place in the shelters for those in need.
“Today, it’s how fast can we get them out of the shelter and into a home with the services” they need to get their footing and regain their independence, she explained. “There has been a real shift in the operation and thinking” about how to address homelessness.
Gordon guided the Coalition to “develop a 10-year plan to end homelessness,” she said. This gave us a recipe for work on every level – state, local and national. It’s a living document that we update constantly.”
She has also been instrumental in developing a statewide database on homelessness. Whenever an individual or family first comes into the system, information about their issues and needs are entered into the system. That way, when these people seek assistance in another community, “we can start where the other community left off,” Gordon said. “We know where they’ve been and what their issues are without making poor people keep telling their stories over and over again.” This system also enables agencies across the state to provide some continuity of service to those in need.
The Coalition for the Homeless has also established quality assurance standards for all shelters in Louisville, which include education for online workers. “That was a big step,” she explained “that has gained national recognition.” It helps build collaboration among agencies that serve the homeless population, enabling the Coalition to coordinate services individuals and families might need.
The coalition did an analysis of the cost of services for homeless people in the Loiusville area – hospitals, jails, mental health hospitals, etc. – and found that over a two-year period, it costs the community $88 million to care for 7,000 homeless people. By coordinating services and engaging people, Gordon says, the community can save money.
Gordon is especially proud of the Coalition’s current focus on rapid rehousing, which focuses on getting people out of shelters into affordable, decent, safe housing, helping them get stabilized and back onto their feet; and housing first, which gets people into housing first then helps them work on the issues that caused them to become homeless in the first place.
She is also proud of Louisville’s white flag system that ensures that every person who needs shelter during extremely hot or cold weather conditions has a place to go. In her 13 years, Gordon recalled, there has been only one weather-related death among Louisville’s homeless population, and that was because “we couldn’t find him,” she said.
Despite the progress, she is frustrated because “there are not enough affordable housing units available. Some people are paying over 30 percent of their income for rent. That means they are always on the edge, and one little thing can tilt them into homelessness.”
Sometimes, it’s the little things that keep them from getting back on their feet, she continued. For example, the state of Kentucky will not issue a photo ID to a person who is experiencing homelessness despite the fact that there would be not cost to the state. A photo ID, she explained, “opens the door for the trip back into society. Without it, they can’t even get in to speak to their legislators.”
Issuing ID cards is a simple thing that could be done “to remove barriers for people trying to make their way back.
She’s also frustrated because, “There are over 8,000 children that meet the criteria of homelessness in the school district,” and she is concerned “about the 993 people who are in foreclosure this month who don’t know what the system is. They’ve never used it. Their kids are suffering. They just want their lives back and their homes back, and they don’t know what to do.”
Foreclosures, she pointed out, are happening in all parts of the city.
“Poverty has existed from biblical times,” she said, but she is seeing a disturbing trend. “The fastest growing population of the homeless now are women and children, and that is so sad. Kids need continuity but homeless children don’t have food. They don’t have security. They don’t have love. So how can they learn in school? They have to have stability.”
“Education is very important,” Gordon continued. “It may not be the total answer to getting out of poverty and homelessness, but it is one of the best tools.”
“I have so much to be grateful for,” Gordon said, “and I’ve had so much support from the Jewish community and my family and the universities. … It’s an amazing thing to see – the outpouring of gifts people are willing to give to help people get back on their feet.” She praised the many volunteers who work hard and develop innovative ideas.
While she’s still passionate about her work on behalf of the homeless, Gordon is also ready to slow down a bit. She’ll do a bit more teaching at Indiana University Southeast, where she teaches a masters level class about poverty in the classroom for teachers who are just beginning their careers.
She also looks forward to spending more time with her husband, Sam, visiting family. Her daughter and son-in-law, Kim and Stuart Frankenthal, live in Chicago, and they have three children, Seth, Jeremy and Andrew.
Her daughter and son-in-law, Hillary and Alex Smoler, live in Moadiin, Israel. They have three children, Penina, Yael and Avi. Here in Louisville, she also has her son and daughter-in-law, Lyle and Tracy Gordon, and their son, Zach, and her mother, Laverne Ontell.
The Gordons are members of Adath Jeshurun.