Homeless center under the microscope

Neighbors' complaints about Catholic Action Center get attention at Lexington's city hall

Issues include Loiterers frightening Kids

bfortune@herald-leader.comAugust 13, 2011 

As Urban County Council members consider expanding a nuisance ordinance that might threaten the Catholic Action Center's existence, the center is trying to address neighbors' complaints about loitering homeless people.

The center at 400 East Fifth Street provides food, shelter, restrooms and showers for the homeless.

But neighbors complain about drunks, fighting, raucous behavior and crowds of people congregating on the sidewalk outside the center, frightening children who pass by on their way to William Wells Brown Elementary School a few blocks away.

These are not new issues, Councilman Steve Kay said.

But the center has not addressed such complaints, he said. Kay, who lives in the neighborhood, said he was aware of problems even before he took office in January.

Resident Stuart Green said he has seen many of these problems for years, "but they were not as bad as they are now."

Four council members met recently with Bishop Ronald Gainer of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Lexington to express their concerns and show him the lengthy list of 911 calls to police regarding the Catholic Action Center.

"We asked the bishop to take a look at the crime statistics and take some action to increase safety there," Vice Mayor Linda Gorton said.

Police received 779 calls about the Catholic Action Center from June 2, 2006, to June 2, 2011.

That compares to 38 calls to police from Lighthouse Ministry, 1,708 from the Hope Center and 762 from the Salvation Army, all of which also house homeless people.

More calls came from the Hope Center because it is a larger facility, with about 300 people staying there each night, Kay said. About 40 people stay at the Catholic Action Center each night.

At other facilities serving the homeless, most police calls came from the facility itself because staffers were having trouble with someone who was drunk, on drugs or being disruptive, Kay said.

"At the Catholic Action Center, it is mostly the neighbors who call. The center doesn't seem willing to police its own activities and the people it services," Kay said.

The city also has received 21 complaints about trash and loitering outside the Community Inn nighttime homeless shelter, which opened this spring at 824 Winchester Road. The inn is a joint venture of the Catholic Action Center and Emmanuel Apostolic Church of Zion. An average of 65 men and women sleep there every night.

One way to deal with the disturbances, Kay said, is to expand the city's nuisance ordinance so it applies to commercial property, not just residential property. "The current ordinance says if you have more than two police citations in a certain period of time, the building can be closed for one year," Kay said.

Ginny Ramsey, co-director of the center, said her staff met with neighbors two weeks ago to hear their concerns, and another meeting is scheduled Monday. She also wants to meet with council members.

She said the center has taken steps to respond to concerns. A security guard was hired to patrol in front of the center from 7 to 8:15 a.m. and 2:15 to 4 p.m., times when children are going to and coming from school. The guard started working Thursday, the first day Fayette County Public Schools were back in session.

Security cameras have been installed at the Fifth Street center and the Community Inn so staff inside can see activity outside.

Also, center volunteers have started picking up trash in front of the center and about a block in each direction on Chestnut Street.

Ramsey said she and her staff are taking the complaints seriously.

She said people at the center have been told they no longer may smoke outside the center. "They can come inside for services. But if they want to smoke, they have to walk," she said.

Reach Beverly Fortune at (859) 231-3251 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3251.

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