Is Lexington homeless shelter also a church? City says no

bfortune@herald-leader.comMay 12, 2012 

  • Tuesday meeting

    What: Council member Bill Farmer announced a meeting to discuss forming a neighborhood association for the area near the Community Inn. Other neighborhood issues will be discussed.

    When: 6:30 p.m. Tuesday

    Where: Auto Tech Service, 780 Winchester Road.

Lexington zoning officials are attempting to force the closing of the Community Inn, an overnight homeless shelter on Winchester Road.

They say that a conditional-use permit allows a church at the site, but that the Community Inn is not a church.

City zoning inspectors said the building at 824 Winchester Road is in violation of its permit granted by the Board of Zoning Adjustment.

"It's our opinion, it is not fundamentally a church, but is fundamentally a homeless shelter," Chris King, director of the division of planning, said in an interview. "We don't believe this is what the Board of Adjustment approved."

A report on the Community Inn released Friday by the planning staff said the question was not whether there is a need for the kind of services the Community Inn provides. "That need is clear, evident and increasing."

"It must be recognized, however, that these activities are regulated by the laws of our community. These laws must be ... enforced fairly, evenly and with regard to the rights and needs of the surrounding community and neighbors," the report stated.

A revocation hearing on The Community Inn's conditional-use permit is scheduled before the Board of Adjustment at 1 p.m. Friday in council chambers of the downtown Government Center.

"A revocation hearing is not something taken lightly. These don't happen often," said Bill Farmer, the 5th District Urban County Council member, whose district includes the Community Inn.

Farmer said the staff report "echoes the concerns the neighbors have expressed. It is a ruse to say this is a church when it is purely and only a homeless shelter."

Mayor Jim Gray announced Friday the formation of a commission on homelessness to examine issues concerning Lexington's homeless population.

He said he is forming the commission because of recent issues related to homelessness, including concerns raised about Messner's Boarding House, the impact of a feeding program on Phoenix Park and its neighbors, shelter overcrowding, and the operation of the Community Inn.

A conditional-use permit granted in March 2010 to Inner City Breakthrough Ministries was for a small church with a 30-seat sanctuary and activities two days a week.

There was no indication in the Breakthrough Ministries' conditional-use application of any intent to open a homeless shelter as part of the church ministry, or to have people sleep in the building, the planning staff report said.

Also, the building does not meet the required minimum of off-street parking for a church with a seating capacity of 30.

Breakthrough Ministries vacated the property less than a year after the permit was granted.

The building was taken over by Emmanuel Apostolic Church and the Catholic Action Center, a joint partnership that runs the nighttime homeless shelter for men and women from 7 p.m. to 8 a.m. daily.

"The conditional-use permit granted to Breakthrough Ministries was given over to Emmanuel Apostolic Church," said Ginny Ramsey, a co-director of the Catholic Action Center.

As many as 75 homeless men and women sleep in the shelter each night.

A portion of the second floor will open Sunday night with additional space for 50 women, Ramsey said.

"The problem is we have a different idea of what church really is," Elder James McDonald, minister of Emmanuel Apostolic Church, said in an interview. "The Community Inn is not a church as society sees it. But the presences of the Lord is in this place. A lot of people have been set free of drugs, prostitution."

A service had been scheduled for 7:30 p.m. last Thursday, but the presiding minister did not show up. Close to 8 p.m., after the arrival of a reporter and photographer, McDonald entered and said, "Let's have church."

There are no Sunday worship services, but there is a women's discussion group at noon Sunday, led by Judy McLaughlin, co-director of the Catholic Action Center.

Because the Community Inn does not look or function like a traditional church makes it no less a church, Ramsey said. "The religious land-use act says you can't define what church is. To say we don't have a church because we don't have Mass? That's a joke."

As for the revocation hearing: "We don't want this to be a dogfight with the city because we know we're going to win," she said. "I don't want our city to pay for being in a dogfight when it could spend that money to better use."

Arthur Crosbie, director of the Lexington Fair Housing Council, will represent the Community Inn and Catholic Action Center at the revocation hearing, Ramsey said.

Several calls to Crosbie seeking comment were not returned.

Neighbors have expressed concern to Farmer and at a recent neighborhood meeting about the shelter, saying it has created continuous problems. People can't sit on their porches for fear of being panhandled or walk to the corner market without catcalls and whistles, or let children play on the sidewalks, he said.

"The Community Inn, oddly enough, has taken away the sense of community" in that neighborhood, Farmer said.

Neighbor Steve Crook said at the neighborhood meeting that the biggest problem is that people who want to stay in the homeless shelter arrive hours before it opens. "They can't get inside, so they loiter on the sidewalks. They go to the bathroom in the street. Children can't go outside and play."

Crook and other neighbors said they appreciated the efforts of Ramsey and McDonald. But the shelter is too close to a residential area. "It should be located someplace else," Crook said.

A security guard has been hired to stand outside the shelter between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. to tell the homeless that they can wait on Community Inn property for the doors to open.

Farmer said neighbors and the community have compassion for the homeless. "But we have got to work together to solve these problems, not go our independent ways," he said.

"Lexington has a zoning ordinance that is very flexible. It also has a place for homeless shelters. To plop one down and say this is a church is tough for everybody to take," he said.

Looking toward a long-term solution, the city's planning staff said it was hopeful that Emmanuel Apostolic Church, the Catholic Action Center, other groups that minister to the homeless and city government will work together to find a suitable location for a homeless shelter.

Beverly Fortune: (859) 231-3251. Twitter: @BFortune2010.

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