Homelessness in Bowling Green

Homelessness is a worldwide issue. But no two stories are quite the same. Take a walk through town in Bowling Green, Kentucky, where you'll find couples navigating love on the street, folks fighting hard to get back on track and volunteers who open their hearts to lend a hand. 

Dustin & Alicia

Come Shine, Come Rain

Thirty-four-year-old Alicia Zantow rests alongside her fiancé, Dustin Carpenter on Friday, Feb. 16, 2024 during an intake session for Room in the Inn, an overnight winter warming shelter program for the local homeless population, across the street from the Salvation Army in Bowling Green, Ky. The pair said that one of the most challenging parts of being homeless is finding places to sleep uninterrupted. Earlier this week, Alicia said, they slept through the day in a public bathroom downtown. “They’re heated—There isn’t anywhere else on the weekends,” she said.

It’s a blue and drizzly February night in Bowling Green. Just across the street from the Salvation Army on 400 West Main Ave., 20-some-odd folks in sweaters, coats and heavy clothes shuffle about a sparsely furnished waiting area. Hobby Lobby décor hangs here-and-there on the walls.

The registration volunteers, armed with clipboards and lists, have read off rules, assigned placements and hustled back into their rear office to get the ball rolling. Most of the folks here already know the drill. In the meantime, sounds of conversation, shuffling backpacks and plastic bags crisscross the guests seated among the white plastic folding tables and chairs. 

Seated on a shallow bench tucked into the corner, a young woman with sun-kissed—if not a bit sunburnt—skin rests her head on her boyfriend’s shoulders. A soft smile crosses his face, his bespectacled eyes and scruffy, dirty-blond beard. He holds his hand over hers, tucked into the pockets of his black Nike “Just Do It” sweater. 

Alicia fusses at Dustin over his use of their shared vape during an overnight warming shelter at Hillvue Heights Church on Nashville Road in Bowling Green, Ky. Hillvue is one of more than a dozen churches partnered with Room in the Inn Bowling Green, a nonprofit providing temporary winter shelter for the local homeless population throughout the cold season. Unlike long-term residential shelters, such as those hosted by the Salvation Army, Room in the Inn nights rotate locations each day of the week. Alicia said the overnight shelters are a huge help. “If we didn’t have Room in the Inn, there’s a lot of us that would either starve or freeze when it’s cold,” she said. “I wish they’d do it all year.”

Alicia pesters Dustin for a drag of his cigarette during an overnight warming shelter at Hillvue Heights Church. The couple shares an addiction to nicotine. According to a 2013 study published in the research journal Addictions, having a personal history of homelessness is shown to nearly double the likelihood than an individual is a smoker, controlled for other demographic factors.

The vans are here, now. And the young couple, with all their fellow weary travelers, pack off for the church—tonight, It's at Bowling Green Christian. When they arrive, they'll take a hot meal, a pillow, a blanket, and claim two side-by-side cots. They’ll be warm and safe for the evening. But it’s back on the street in the morning with the sunrise.

Alicia works on a page in her coloring book on Monday, March 11, 2024, during an overnight warming shelter at Hillvue Heights Church. She said she’s colored for many years, and has a few bins packed full of completed books in storage. Her favorites, she said—aside from her swear-word books—are those designed by Lisa Frank. “It calms my mind down,” Alicia said. “I concentrate on the coloring, but also sort stuff out in my head, at the same time.” 

Thirty-four-year-old Alicia Zantow, from Greenfield, Indiana., met 34-year-old Dustin Carpenter through a mutual friend in his hometown of Franklin, Kentucky. The couple lived with Alicia's mother in Franklin. 

Then Alicia lost her job, just prior to the pandemic. The three of them got evicted. Their search for a new place, too, was complicated by other factors. "We had money, but we couldn't find a place to go, because we had three cats at the time," she said. 

Unwilling to let go of their fur-babies, they wound up in a motel room. Then more bad news. Alicia's mother had heart surgery on her mitral valve. With her in the hospital, then in rehab, they all moved in with Alicia's sister, Shannon.

Then, she and Alicia had a falling-out. 

Dustin and Alicia roll their bags up the sidewalk at Roland Bland Park on the 400 block of Center Street in downtown Bowling Green, Ky. One of the biggest difficulties about being homeless, the pair said, is managing and toting all of their personal belongings everywhere they go. “Once you’re [homeless], it’s hard to get out of it,” Alicia said. “We have no car, no job, no place to stay—We have to have all of our stuff with us all the time.”

Dustin and Alicia share a moment outside Express Laundromat on U.S. 31 Bypass West. Dustin said that Alicia is the first partner he's had to stick with him through his struggles with mental illness. She said he often suffers from separation anxiety in the few moments where they're apart.

Mom and the cats went to stay with other family in Indiana. Alicia and Dustin went back to Franklin to a shelter.

"We were doin' good for a little bit, then shit happened again—Dustin got kicked out," Alicia said. But at least they both still had jobs, and $1,200 in savings. They couldn't find a weekly-rate motel, so short-term rentals ate through that quickly. Dustin lost a series of jobs, and Alicia couldn't pay the rent on her own.

They couch-surfed with friends for a week. And soon enough, they found themselves on the doorstep of the Salvation Army in Bowling Green, where they stayed for a while. But the wards are segregated by gender, and they found the rules a bit strict. Even so, they didn't relish when Dustin was banned for alleged infractions.

Dustin and Alicia pack their bags after finishing a few loads at Express Laundromat. Much of their recent laundry, Alicia said, is finds from dumpster diving. “It’s fun,” Alicia said. “People throw away brand new shit.” 

Alicia, with bags in tow, waits to catch a bus at a stop downtown. She said she wears a lot of pink—bright, to match her personality. 

Their stopgap after that was Room in the Inn Bowling Green, a local non-profit providing temporary overnight warming shelters with a dozen-and-a-half-or-so partner churches, rotating hosting each weeknight throughout the winter season. And in the final days, not a moment too soon, Alicia’s tax check came back. It was enough to get them through a week at the Economy Inn off the bypass. But just as before, when their pockets dried up, they were back out in the rain.

Alicia and Dustin walk back to their motel room at the Economy Inn on U.S. 31 Bypass West in Bowling Green, Ky. Right at the end of the warming shelter season through Room in the Inn, the pair caught a break when Alicia’s tax check came back, allowing them to stay a few nights off the street. “As long as I’ve got somewhere to lay my head down, take a shower, take a piss and shit, I’m good,” Dustin said.

Alicia and Dustin cuddle in their bed in their motel room. Dustin said it felt good to sleep next to one another in a bed, as they aren't allowed to whenever they stay with church hosts through Room in the Inn, or at the Salvation Army, which segregates living quarters by gender. "Feels like safety," Dustin said.

Alicia and Dustin pack their things to move out of their room. She said that she and Dustin have become so accustomed from moving place to place that they never worry they'll leave things behind. But outside, Alicia sees bad weather. "I don't like the look of them clouds," she says.

Alicia calls her mother inside the Lifeskills Wellness Connection. She vented about difficulties finding housing. “Even if we do find an apartment, they still want social security card, ID, all this stuff we didn’t have,” Alicia said. “We’re, like, number 1,007 [in line] for Section 8.” 

After a quick trip to the park bathroom across the street, Alicia settles back into her temporary encampment with Dustin on Saturday, April 6, 2024 in the side-alley of the Lifeskills Wellness Connection building on the 400 block of Center Street in downtown Bowling Green, Ky. 

Alicia says it's hard to get off the street once you land there. Some employers will throw away a job application once they know that a person is homeless. And even if you land an interview, she said, you can't pull up with all your possessions in tow.

Once you get the job, keeping up can be a challenge. With no car, you're at the mercy of bus schedules. Even simple self-care tasks, like taking a shower, becomes a constant challenge when you're living on the street. Both she and Dustin are felons, too, which makes it all the more difficult. Some places won't rent. 

They camped by the river, then the police swept them out, under threat of trespass. Alicia said it's getting harder and harder to find a place to stay. So, for now, they’ll move from encampment to encampment, or stay at the parks, when they can. They’ll do their best to stay warm, dry, and fed. But they’ll be together, sunrise to sunset, rain-or-shine. Eventually, Dustin said, they're gonna get married. 

“But we gotta find our own place first,” Alicia said.

"Not all of us are looking for a handout. 

Some of us want a hand up. Give us a chance."

—Alicia Zantow

Alicia and Dustin fell back asleep in their temporary camp in the side-alley of the Lifeskills Wellness Connection building. When the weekend comes to a close, they'll have to move once more. But for now, they're relatively safe, dry, and together.


A Hand Up

Bowling Green Room in the Inn director Dewayne Conner prays with Lloyd Scott on Friday, Feb. 16, 2024, during an intake session at the Salvation Army Fellowship Hall on Main Avenue. Room in the Inn (not formally affiliated with the Salvation Army, aside from using their building as an intake space) partners with a dozen or more local churches to provide temporary overnight warming shelters for the homeless throughout the cold season. Dewayne said he cares a great deal about the guests, and considers many of them to be friends. “Everyone deserves kindness, love and respect,” he said. Lloyd and Dewayne asked for God’s help in Lloyd’s battles with temptation. “I’ve been struggling, man,” he said. “I been moving toward the dark side.” He was later banned for the season, leaving him to find a place to stay each night for himself. "Lord, I ask that you take this burden off of Lloyd," Dewayne said.

A heavyset man wearing blue jeans, a blue sweatshirt, glasses and a more-salt-than-pepper beard steps into the waiting area full of a couple-dozen-or-so weary travelers in the Salvation Army in Bowling Green. He surveys the bright, fluorescent room. Many of these faces, he knows. Any of those he doesn’t, he’ll come to know, soon enough.

He makes some small talk with the guests, sharing a few smiles and laughs, before he turns ‘round to make his way back down the hall, his steps somewhat labored. As he walks, one might notice the tears making their way up the back of the calf of his jeans. He hangs a right into a temporary office where, waiting for him in the back of a room piled high with packaged food, bottled drinks, toiletries, sleeping bags, tents, first-aid supplies, blankets, pillows, and two of his fellow volunteers, is his crowded desk.

A fellow volunteer talks with Dewayne about overnight placements for the guests. If the number of guests exceeds the capacity of a host church, the Salvation Army will often house the overflow. However, certain people may not be allowed to stay at the Salvation Army, or at a particular host church, due to past infractions resulting in bans. Dewayne says this is one of the several reasons why having a RITI intake space is important, as it ensures they can vet the registrants. “We need to make sure they’re sober and in the right state of mind that is safe not only for them, but also for the other guests.” NOTE—This photo has been edited to erase the names of two guests from the whiteboard under the ban notices, in order protect the confidentiality of the guests of the shelter.

Between a clipboard, laptop and a bag of plain, plastic poker chips with numbers drawn on in black marker, he makes random draws to decide who all goes where. As he works down the list, he and his teammates debate. With some of the . . . trickier placements, there’s creative footwork to be done. 

Not every guest is welcome at every venue. The goal, as always, is to get all who clear the vetting a hot dinner, a warm cot, and a hot breakfast in the morning. This bunch is determined, and it’s seldom they don’t meet it.Once the vans arrive, he makes his way out into the drizzle of the evening and hoists himself up into the driver’s seat of a car to ferry the guests. Thanks to him and his teammates, they’ll be safe for the night.

Dewayne helps set up cots at Hillvue Heights Church on Nashville Road. This season, each Monday night has been hosted in the Hillvue church cafeteria. Though Dewayne holds numerous administrative responsibilities through RITI, he—like many of his fellow board members—insists on helping with all the basic tasks, as well. “I just enjoy helping people,” he said.

Dewayne Conner says he’s never much liked seeing people get picked on. It’s just one of the many reasons for his involvement at Bowling Green Room in the Inn, a non-profit partnered with more than a dozen local churches to provide overnight winter warming shelters for the homeless throughout the cold season. 

“I’m not big on titles, but I’m the board chairman,” he said. Dewayne’s involvement with began a few years ago through a friend he met when he started attending at Hillvue Heights Church. “When I walked in, I had this overwhelming feeling that ‘this [was] where I [needed] to be.”’ 

On his way out from an RITI board meeting, Dewayne meets up with Lester  Martin (center) a former guest at RITI, and Lester’s friend (who declined to be named) at the Shell Station on the intersection of Fairview Avenue and the U.S. 31 Bypass West. Lester had some time to spare before his shift at Rally’s, and Dewayne wanted to hand out a sleeping bag to his friend. “I love you both,” Dewayne said.

In the parking lot of Hillvue Heights Church, Dewayne and Chad Bazzell, a fellow deacon at the church, cook a few dozen burgers to be divvied up and sent off to a handful of local non-profits. In addition to his role at RITI, Dewayne serves on the Hillvue security team, and donates his time to run various church errands. “Dewayne and I cook every third Sunday of the month,” Bazzell said. 

Dewayne talks with Caprice Steward, a fellow board member, about her new puppy during a monthly RITI board meeting at House on the Hill on Magnolia Street. The board meets regularly to discuss relationships with new or current partner churches, funding, volunteer staffing, as well as rules and regulations. “I’m not big on titles, but I’m the board chairman,” he said. 

That same friend later invited him to volunteer for overnight shelters one night a week. But the connections he made with those he met through the shelter pulled him in deeper. “During the rest of the week, I’d miss the guests. I’d wonder how they were doing,” he said. “So, I started volunteering at registration just so I could see them.”

He considers many of those guests to be friends. “I see so many people in conversation put homeless people down. They don’t realize that they’re human beings, too.”

Though Dewayne tries his best not to take his work home with him, he finds it hard to keep himself from lending a hand at expense of his own health. “I’ve had some health issues this year—running too hard, too long and not taking care of myself.”

But his colleagues and fellow volunteers have, around every turn, encouraged him to step back and look after himself. He said that’s been helpful. “Now I’m feeling a lot better, which, in turn, is going to make me be able to volunteer more,” he said.

Hillvue Heights Church member Robert Neyenhaus shares a laugh with Dewayne during the final RITI night at Hillvue. Dewayne and Neyenhaus both enjoy serving the guests at on shelter nights. “I just like impacting people’s lives,” Neyenhaus said. “The ones in the community who need support, we’re able to support them—even if it is for just a small tidbit of time each week.”

The shelter season is over for the year. “It’s a relief, but it’s also a burden,” Dewayne said. “You love the community. You love the guests, and you worry about them and what’s going to happen to them,” he said. In the weeks after the end of the season, he swung by to meet a few folks and hand out sleeping bags to those who he knew would be out in the cold overnight. And after all the work at intake, shelter nights, RITI board meetings, Hillvue and his day job, Dewayne will drive back home. 

Dewayne heads out to his car to drive home from Hillvue during the final RITI night at the church. He’s about 45 minutes from home, but he’ll be back in a few hours time to see off the guests in the morning. “I might just sleep in these clothes so I can get up and go,” he said.

Dewayne lives alone with his little white cat, Aria. He was a barn cat from a litter of four. And when all his siblings were adopted, he was the only one left. “That’s why I tell everybody he’s my gift from Jesus,” Dewayne said. “He’s my baby boy.” 

There's good in everyone. 

I try and look for that good in everyone."

—Dewayne Conner

Dewayne sits at home with his cat, Aria, in Glasgow. Dewayne said he was a barn cat from a litter of four. After each of his three siblings were adopted, Aria was the only one left. “That’s why I tell everybody he’s a gift from Jesus,” he said. “He’s my baby boy.” 


Back to his Feet

After an overnight shift on his first day at Rally’s, Lester Martin, who is homeless, sleeps through the sunrise on a bench along a Park Greenway Trail behind Kereiakes Park and Fairview Cemetery in Bowling Green. Lester says he likes the spot because it is secluded and affords him the occasional glimpse of nature. “It’s really peaceful—no one bothers you,” he said. “A lot of time you’ll see deer. I had a little possum who would sleep down under my bench.”

Under the soft light of an overcast dawn, a middle-aged man sleeps quietly on a park bench tucked away along a small, paved path beneath the trees. He does not wake with the sound of morning birdsong. Stood beside him, a foot or so from his head, is just about every possession he has to his name, stuffed into, tied, or otherwise tethered to his hiking pack.

He is homeless, yes, but something seems different than expected—a fresh-shaven beard and a clean haircut. Under his penguin-pattern blanket, he breathes easy. It’s a well-deserved nap. After all, last night was his first shift at his new job at Rally’s.

Lester Martin said he used to live in Grayson County, where he had an apartment and a job at Plastikon—an injection-molding company in Leitchfield—but grew tired of his surroundings. “I hated that city. There wasn’t nothing to do there because it was so little,” he said. “I left my apartment, everything I had, and I took off walking.”

Lester said he walked about 70 miles to Bowling Green, under the presumption that he’d find a better life in a bigger town. When he got here, he still found a lot to be desired. “Bowling Green was supposed to have a lot more jobs, a lot more Greyhound busses, plasma centers [to sell blood for cash] and three different homeless shelters. It was nothing like what it said on the internet.”

Lester “flies a sign” on the corner of Chestnut Street and East 6th Avenue downtown. Though he said it can be a small source of income for a little food or drink, it’s unpredictable. “What I call day-to-day living,” he said. Sometimes, he might make anywhere from 30 to 100 dollars. This morning, he didn’t make a dime.

Denise Freeman, a student barber, puts on the finishing touches on Lester’s hot shave at JC’s Barber College near the Med Center. Junius Carpenter, the owner, said they began offering student cuts for free after COVID, to encourage folks to come in. “This is the only place I’m getting my hair cut anymore,” Lester said. “I feel a lot better now that I got all that off me.”

Since he arrived, he’s lived on the street, at the Salvation Army, or in the overnight warming shelters at Room in the Inn. During the day, he makes a little money panhandling or, as he puts it “flying a sign." 

“That’s what I call day-to-day living—you can get enough to get you a little something to eat, get you some cigarettes, stuff like that. But you’re not going to be out here paying rent,” he said.

At the Lifeskills Wellness Connection downtown on Center Street, Lester checks his mail. The Wellness Connection allows some of the local homeless folks to use their office as a mailing address. Lester’s main concern today for the mail is his phone. “Just waiting on that SIM card,” he said.

And yet, things were looking up. Several months after coming to Bowling Green, he hooked up with HOTEL INC, a local non-profit whose goals, according to their website, are to help homeless people to “overcome obstacles, connect with local resources, and establish attainable goals for self-sufficiency.” With their help, Lester was approved for a Section 8 housing voucher. 

“I’m about to get a crib here soon,” he said. “I’ve already got the job.” The manager at Rally’s on the bypass told him he’d be able to work with them, so long as he could get the right apparel. “All I got to do is get me some pants.”

Seated amongst his belongings on a cot in the cafeteria of the Salvation Army—where temporary guests stay—Lester rolls up his new work pants. Tomorrow, he starts his new job at Rally’s on U.S. 31 West Bypass. He says someone through Room in the Inn, a temporary winter warming shelter non-profit, furnished him a pair. 

Lester rides a GoBG Transit bus on the way to his first day on the job at Rally’s. Through HOTEL INC, a non-profit helping homeless folks navigate their way to secure employment, healthy food and self-sufficiency, he can often grab a few transit passes on the house. This bus system has a lot of the stops he needs—Salvation Army, HOTEL INC, the Wellness Connection, and a handful of others. 

On the final week of Room in the Inn, Lester made his way from downtown to JC’s Barber College near the Medical Center to get himself a haircut. Since COVID-19, the students have cut hair for free. And on the final night before his new job, he sat in a cot at the Salvation Army unpacking and repacking his belongings, dusting off his new slip-proof shoes and rolling his black trousers up for the coming day.

Lester chats with his new boss, Brenda Miller (right) and her husband, James Miller, who helped show Lester the ropes on his first day. Brenda knew Lester was homeless, but was happy to give him a chance, having worked with folks in similar situations and seen them turn their lives around. On his first night, she stuck him on the extended graveyard shift, Lester said, in an attempt ensure he wouldn’t have to sleep outside in the dark.

Lester showed up at work for late shifts, slept in the park and was making money. "They seem to like me," he said. He said he got along well with his co-workers and was content making burgers on the line. He would stop into the Wellness Connection for free meals and a place to rest during the day, and made time to look at housing with his Navigator at HOTEL INC. He even got a membership at BGPR Fitness so he could take showers on the regular.

In a fresh shirt and ball cap, Lester wipes down the tables and benches outside. He’s worn a similar uniform before, when he worked for a different Rally’s a while ago.

Seated on a bench downtown in Circus Square Park, Lester talks with Dewayne, the director for Room in the Inn, about Lester’s new job at Rally’s on the bypass. “I like the hot dogs there,” Dewayne said. Dewayne swung by to furnish Lester with a sleeping bag, as the RITI season recently finished. Smelling alcohol on his breath, Dewayne also gently cautioned Lester to watch his drinking.

At the Shell Station on the intersection of Fairview Avenue and U.S. 31 Bypass West, Lester, seated next to a friend who declined to be named, takes a swig from a bottle of liquor. Lester would be arrested for public intoxication for drinking in a park in the coming week. And after his arrest, which caused him to miss his shift, he never went back to the store, assuming he’d be fired. "When I drink that vodka, there's a whole other person that comes out," he said. "That's why I try and stay away from it."

He missed the shift at Rally’s that night, and never went back, assuming he’d be fired. Aside from that, he said, he hesitates at the idea of finding another job in the meantime. Due to a previous similar offense, per a signed agreement, he’ll have to appear before the court and likely serve a thirty-to-ninety-day sentence in jail. With a court date scheduled for May, he worries he’d have to give up a potential new job when he goes to serve his time. Unless he renews it, his Section 8 voucher will expire soon, leaving him to pay for housing on his own.

Before the early-morning Sunday service, Becca Kello, an associate rector and campus minister at Christ Episcopal Church downtown, explains that Lester (and a number of other homeless folks) will have a few days to find somewhere else to sleep. After that, she said, police will be called to escort those who remain off the property. “Our concern is safety,” she said. “Given the number of people, that could become an issue.” Lester and his friends were welcomed, though, to join the Sunday services.

Lester takes a nap on a couch in the Wellness Connection. Tuesdays through Thursdays, when it’s open, many people swing by to grab pizza, free AC, an outlet to charge their devices and much-needed naps.

Lester said he thinks there’s more the city could do to help the homeless population. “Take one of these empty buildings, put showers in it, and make it where they can go and sit in there till five or six in the afternoon. Throw some washers and driers in there so they can do laundry.” That way, he said, nobody will complain about people staying in the parks.

“I’ve met a lot of good people out here,” Lester said. At the same time, he said he wished outsiders wouldn’t look down on the homeless community. “We’re out here trying to do what we can.” Aside from that, he said, many of the homeless just want folks to sit and talk to.

         “Being by yourself a lot fucks with your head.”

—Lester Martin

Lester heads home to his bench after a long night at Rally’s. "It was pretty good," he said.  He’ll be able to set down his pack, lie down for the night, and wake up feeling a little more rested.

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