Project: Homeless | Three people, three paths to homelessness

bmusgrave@herald-leader.comNovember 24, 2013 

  • Project: Homeless — More coverage

    COMING UP IN THE HERALD-LEADER

    Tuesday: Jenny and Harry Sebastian became homeless after their daughter became ill and could no longer care for her aging and disabled parents. The couple found themselves walking the streets of Lexington in October after they were dumped by their daughter. Elderly dumping is a trend that's becoming more common, social service providers say.

    COMING UP ONLINE AND ON WKYT

    Project: Homeless, a joint investigation by the Herald-Leader and WKYT, is available on Kentucky.com and WKYT.com. See additional reports on WKYT at 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. Monday.

By 6:40 p.m., the line is already more than 20 deep outside the rhombus-shaped gray building at Winchester Road and Dayton Avenue on a cold Sunday in October.

The lines are a routine occurrence outside The Community Inn, which sits beside a plumbing supply store and across from a plasma center in a commercial corridor. But the homeless shelter's neighbors have been clear: They want the shelter and the people who stay there — as many as 75 men and 30 women — gone.

"It's the loitering and the drinking," said Martha Webster, who lives on Delaware Avenue. "It's the sex offenders that stay there. It's just not safe."

It's been a rocky year for the inn and for the people who stay there. Its future is in question as a fight with the city over its existence plays out in the courts. The city yanked its permit in June 2012, contending that organizers lied on initial permit applications because they said it was a church. Backers of the shelter argue that it conducts religious services and that the shelter is part of its outreach; they have asked that the conditional use permit be reinstated.

Ginny Ramsey, co-founder of The Community Inn and the Catholic Action Center, is trying to find a new home for the shelter.

"They could shut us down at any moment," she tells a group of men in the downstairs of the inn not long after the shelter opened its doors at 7 p.m. on this particular Sunday. Mattresses line the wall of one side of the main room, with straight-back chairs lining the other. A back room holds a dozen more mattresses. A television plays in the background. Many of the men have picked a bed, pulled up the sheets and are asleep. Some shower. Others read — The Bible, Dan Brown and John Le Carré novels are favorites.

Ramsey looks around and shakes her head.

"So this is what everyone is so afraid of," she says.

During the course of a month, the Herald-Leader spent several evenings at The Community Inn, talking to people who stay there about their lives and experiences.

Most walk to The Community Inn each night. But their path to homelessness — specifically, The Community Inn — varied. Many work minimum wage jobs but don't make enough to afford an apartment on their own. Others come from jails and prisons and can't find jobs because of their felony convictions. Some are addicts or mentally ill — or both. And some are sex offenders.

Some bad choices

Dyanne Hines lost her Lexington home three years ago after she refinanced too many times and didn't make the house payments for two years.

"It seemed like found money," Hines tells Ramsey as they talk in a kitchenette in the upstairs of The Community Inn where the women stay.

Hines, who is approaching 70, has been on and off the streets for nearly three years. She's been hospitalized twice with pneumonia and recently was released from the hospital with an infection. Arthritis and other ailments have left her dependent on a walker and a wheelchair. Other homeless people push her in the wheelchair to The Community Inn. She weighs less than 100 pounds.

A battle with alcohol has left her memory fuzzy and her judgment impaired. "I've trusted the wrong people," she says. "But I've made some bad choices."

Hines has worked since she was 17, mostly doing payroll and other office work. Until about three years ago, she was a functioning alcoholic who lived a very middle-class lifestyle. But she got fired from her last job because she reeked of booze.

"I never drank on the job," Hines said. "But when you drink that much, you smell like it. ... They tried to work with me, but I blew it."

Hines receives Social Security payments and has income. She was staying with another homeless woman at a local motel earlier in the week, she tells Ramsey. Hines said she started drinking one night, and now all of her money is gone, stolen by someone at the motel.

She has no money, so she hasn't had a drink in three days, she said.

Ramsey is worried. Hines is in poor health and is too vulnerable to live on the streets.

Ramsey has about 100 beds in apartments and homes where she can place people. She tells Hines she thinks she can get her into one of those places soon.

"I think I'm going to cry," Hines said. "I haven't cried in years."

The next day, Hines waits at the Catholic Action Center, a day center for the homeless, while Ramsey and the mostly volunteer staff try to sort out how to get Hines off the street.

Breakfast is scrambled eggs, but Hines mostly moves the food around her plate.

"I haven't eaten very much in a few days," she says. "You have to wait for your stomach to stretch out."

Finding food and a place to be is one of the most difficult parts of being homeless, she said. The Lighthouse, a downtown Lexington mission, is one of her favorite places to eat. "They're really nice and they go out of their way to make you feel like you're still a human being," Hines says. "They treat you like a person. A real person. I miss that."

The streets can be punishing and mean, but the people who live on them are not, she says.

"I've met some awfully nice people," Hines says.

A little after 1 p.m., AmeriCorps volunteers who work for The Community Inn and Catholic Action Agency take Hines to a small white home off of New Circle and Winchester roads. She's nervous. But when she walks into the neat living room with a dinning room table, an overstuffed leather couch and two comfortable chairs, her shoulders relax. A formerly homeless woman she knows comes from a back bedroom to give her a hug. Hines, who hasn't had a drink in four days, won't be able to drink here, her roommates warn.

When Hines' Social Security check comes in, she'll be required to pay a small portion of rent for the home, owned by Trinity Baptist Church but managed by the Catholic Action Center and The Community Inn. As Hines steps out onto the small porch of the house, she looks up at the sky. The sun is shining.

"It's been a good day," she says.

It was a wonderful life

Ben Hancock came to The Community Inn in July after losing all of his money and parts of both of his legs.

He lived in Mexico for much of the past two decades, working for resorts and volunteering for the Red Cross.

"It was an absolutely wonderful life," Hancock said. He returned to Kentucky several years ago after his brother became ill. His wife also became ill, and they had no insurance. He sold some land he had in Woodford County and gave the money to his children to help pay for his wife's care. He moved into a barn on his other property in Woodford County that had an unfinished apartment with no heat. Earlier this winter, he woke up to find his feet were almost black from frostbite. He eventually got to the University of Kentucky Chandler Medical Center and had to have one leg amputated below the knee and his foot amputated on the other leg. He spent 90 days at UK before being discharged. He was sent to a shelter but was returned to the hospital immediately because Hancock could not stand or go the bathroom by himself.

After a short stay at UK, he ended up at The Community Inn in July. The inn has no nursing staff. But the residents there said they would take care of him, helping him in and out of his wheelchair and helping him to the bathroom. He eventually moved into an apartment managed by the Catholic Action Agency and The Community Inn. But his wound became infected and he was sent back to UK.

When he came out of the hospital, he returned to the apartment. He's been there ever since, he said.

He is in a wheelchair and is trying to get prosthetics for his legs. He works at the Catholic Action Center and Community Inn's laundry room as a way to pay his rent.

"The people here are good to me," Hancock said. "I did relief work in Mexico for years. I lived a great life. But I never expected to be here."

Viewed as threat to society

Bobby McGhee didn't expect to be at The Community Inn either. But he has few choices.

On a recent Sunday, McGhee sat in one of the chairs in the main room of The Community Inn. He was happy to be dry. It had rained hard that Sunday. He had gotten wet and dried out three times as he tried to find places that served food and a place to get out of the rain.

McGhee was released from jail in mid-October at 4 a.m. and was given a bus token. He ended up at The Community Inn because it's the only place a homeless man who is a sex offender may live in Lexington. He has family and friends who would allow him to live with them, but they live in areas where sex offenders can't.

McGhee also wants to prove to everyone that he's not the monster society thinks him to be.

"I want to make it on my own," he said.

He got on the sex-offender list for an attempted rape when he lived in Mississippi. He moved to Lexington in 2008. He was charged in a 2010 rape on Eastland Parkway. Both victims were older than 18.

McGhee maintained his innocence in the Lexington case, saying he was an easy target because he was on the sex-offender registry. Two trials ended with the juries deadlocked. Rather than wait another year in jail for a third trial, he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge with a sentence of time served.

McGhee said he spent much of the past three years in jail angry. Now he's just trying to survive and move on. But finding a job has been difficult.

"As soon as I say sex offender, they're like, 'Oh, well, we'll get back to you,'" McGhee said. He never hears back.

And he still doesn't understand why society deems him but not others a threat.

"Who would you rather live next to, a sex offender or a murderer?" he said.

McGhee said that if The Community Inn did not give him or other sex offenders a place to stay, no one would know where they were.

"Where would you rather have me? In The Community Inn, where there is someone there to make sure that I sign in?" he asked. "Or would you rather have me walking up and down the streets and in neighborhoods?"

Webster, who lives one street behind The Community Inn, said she understands that sex offenders can live in the neighborhood because it is not close to a school, day care center or playground.

"But Community Inn has become a sex-offender magnet," Webster said. "I don't understand why our concerns are being ignored. This is a serious public safety concern."

According to the Kentucky Sex Offender Registry, 12 people on the registry are staying at The Community Inn. Ramsey said the actual number is closer to eight.

The Community Inn is the only homeless shelter in Lexington that can house sex offenders, who are a small but growing number of the homeless because the category of offenses that qualifies someone for the registry has expanded. Most felons have a difficult time finding jobs after being released from prison. But sex offenders are more likely to become homeless because of the stigma and the stringent requirements about where a sex offender may live. They must be at the address they give authorities.

Ramsey said she was working to try to find a solution with other providers and the Department of Corrections on how to house homeless sex offenders safely.

"I think we're going to come up with a different solution," Ramsey said, adding that the issue was not unique to Lexington or even Kentucky. Homeless sex offenders are an issue nationwide, she said.

Typically, sheriff's deputies check the inn twice a week to check on the sex offenders there, Ramsey said. To her knowledge, no sex offender who has stayed at The Community Inn has ever re-offended, she said. Some have been sent back to jail because they weren't at the inn when federal authorities or deputies checked on them. Or they listed the inn as their address but never stayed there.

McGhee is different, Ramsey said. He's both positive and realistic a month after becoming homeless.

"It's hard on people," Ramsey said of homelessness. "They just get so discouraged. Most become depressed."

McGhee said being in jail was easier than being homeless. Yet, he's optimistic that his life will improve.

"I just try to take one day at a time," he said. "That's all I can do."

Beth Musgrave: (859) 231-3205. Twitter: @HLCityhall.

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