Out in the cold: Volunteers find 51 people in Lexington's 'unsheltered homeless' count

jwarren@herald-leader.comFebruary 1, 2013 

A bitter wind whipped chunky snowflakes across Lexington's West Main Street early Thursday night with a few passing motorists trying to keep their windshields clear as the temperature plunged.

It wasn't much cozier in the darkness beneath the overpass that carries West Main over the railroad tracks near Buchannon Street. But homeless people sometimes take shelter there on nights, like Thursday, when it's brutally cold.

When Carrie Berend and Ellis Boatley searched the underpass in Thursday night's storm, however, they found only signs of past habitation: food wrappers, plastic bottles and a Bible. The two volunteers then trudged on through the snow to search elsewhere for Lexington's homeless.

Boatley has been homeless himself at times. Berend is volunteer coordinator for the Catholic Action Center. They were among about 20 people who fanned out across town Thursday night to help conduct Lexington's biennial count of the "unsheltered homeless," that is people who live on the streets rather than using the city's various shelters.

There are really two counts: a survey of street people every other year; and an annual count of homeless people living in shelters. Both surveys were done Thursday.

The result of the counts helps determine how much federal money Lexington receives annually to provide assistance to the homeless.

Numbers were still being tallied Friday. But David Christiansen, executive director of the Central Kentucky Housing and Homeless Initiative, said preliminary figures from the count of those in shelters appeared to be similar to last year, when a total of 1,425 people were identified as living in Lexington homeless shelters.

"So far, the numbers I have seen on people in shelters are running pretty much in line with last year," Christiansen said. "I don't think it's going to be substantially different from a year ago."

Christiansen said a complete picture might not be available until next week.

When the counting of people on the streets ended late Thursday, volunteers had found 51 homeless people living under overpasses, surviving in rude campsites, or taking cover anywhere they could find it around Lexington.

That's down from 113 people identified as living on the streets in Lexington's last survey of unsheltered homeless in January 2011.

Some of the decline could be attributed to the Thursday night bitter cold forcing people indoors.

But Ginny Ramsey, co-director of the Catholic Action Center, contended that it means the Community Inn on Winchester Road is now absorbing a large percentage of the homeless who used to stay on the street. The inn had not opened when the last count of unsheltered homeless was done in 2011.

One hundred twenty three people spent Thursday night at the Community Inn.

"It's good news because it means we have fewer people out on the streets in the cold," Ramsey said Friday.

Still, the Lexington Fire Department sent an ambulance Friday afternoon to pick up a homeless man on Martin Luther King Boulevard who was suffering from frostbite after spending Thursday night outdoors.

Lexington has been getting about $1.5 million a year from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development for homeless programs. But it's "never enough," Christiansen said.

Thursday night, volunteers found four people, including a woman, camping under an overpass on Man o' War Boulevard, fighting off the cold with a fire fed by wood they gathered nearby.

At Nicholasville Road and New Circle, other volunteers met a man and woman who were asking passing motorists for money to get a room for the night. The couple said their Clay County home was destroyed by fire in early January.

Two homeless men, Gerald Johnson and Tom Doyle, were found drinking coffee at a McDonald's on Winchester Avenue. Johnson said they were "warming up" before going to the Community Inn to spend the night.

Both said they were out of work and having no luck finding jobs.

"I have applications out, but nobody has called back," Doyle said.

Johnson said: "We're just down on our luck right now."

One of those helping with Thursday night's count was Eugene Kersey, who's been homeless for 20 years. When it's warm, he camps out. He's living at the Community Inn this winter.

"My mom got married when I was 16, and I didn't get along with her husband," Kersey said. "When I was 18, my mom dropped me off at the Hope Center and that's where it started. I didn't know what to do at first, but I got street smarts pretty quickly."

Recently, however, Kersey got married and now he wants a more normal life.

"I really don't want to do this anymore," he said. "I'm 38 years old. I'm getting too old to do it."

Jim Warren (859) 231-3255.

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