Joel Pett, Herald-Leader cartoonistHerald-Leader Editorial

Lexington can't ignore the homeless

Mayor, council, community must offer affordable housing, services

December 1, 2013 

About a year ago, a task force appointed by Mayor Jim Gray reported back on the intertwined issues of homelessness and affordable housing in Lexington.

The primary recommendations were to create an office within city government to coordinate efforts to combat homelessness and to raise the insurance premium tax one penny to finance an affordable housing trust fund.

Gray put money in his budget for an Office of Homeless Intervention and Prevention this fiscal year, which began July 1, but a director has not been hired yet. The administration hired a consultant to study affordable housing and make recommendations about what Lexington needs, what it will cost and how to fund it.

Some advocates and council members question the need for the study, saying Lexington has been studying the issue for more than 20 years, although the council has shown little enthusiasm for a tax for a housing fund.

Gray insists this is "the right way" to do things, to plan carefully first to avoid misplaced effort and wasted resources.

It's hard to argue with that. But after last week's spitting snow and temperatures well below freezing, it's equally hard to be patient.

Beth Musgrave's excellent reporting on homelessness in Lexington last week put faces to this issue, remarkably familiar ones. The reporting stripped away the luxury many of us enjoy at this time of year when our biggest worries are about heating bills and gaining weight from holiday excess.

The people Musgrave spent time with are not some "other" who have always lived far on the margins of society. Many work at minimum-wage jobs now but can't afford safe housing. Others worked for many years and, like most of us, made mistakes. Some combination of bad luck, serious illness or trusting the wrong people left them walking to The Community Inn for a warm, dry, safe place to spend the night.

Our humanity is challenged by these stories.

But the cost of homelessness is more than an uneasy conscience.

Studies from around the country show what should come as no surprise: The homeless wind up in emergency rooms far more often than people with homes; they also are more likely to be in jail for minor offenses like shoplifting, a drain on police, court and jail budgets.

The task force reported that providing housing and services to prevent homelessness costs $13,000 to $25,000 a year per individual, while the community can spend five times as much on a person on the street.

Other communities have had real success preventing and solving homelessness.

In Dayton, Ohio, a 10-year plan begun in 2006 has built almost 600 permanent housing units with services like social workers and mental health care. In 2006, 127 people were identified as chronically homeless in the Dayton/Montgomery County area, a number that fell to 48 last year.

Louisville began a push to house homeless people in the fall of 2012 that has provided homes to 120 people who had been chronically homeless. The number of chronically homeless there is now 29, down from 59 last year.

Lexington's chronically homeless population has hardly budged from around 190 for several years.

One of the people Musgrave talked with is Dyanne Hines, a woman approaching 70, who lost her job and her home three years ago. She'd been homeless off and on until advocates found a place for her in a home owned by a church and operated by The Catholic Action Center and The Community Inn.

In a videotaped interview, Hines talked about her history, the work she'd done, about people who stole from her, about getting sick from being out all day in the rain.

She'd never thought about homelessness before it happened to her, Hines said. But now she has. "It's a bummer, it's the pits, I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy."

The mayor's office expects the affordable housing study to be complete in January and both personnel and a plan to follow soon after. Good.

The community, and the council, should be prepared to make the investment — in services and housing — to save money and lives.

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