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Needs of homeless surveyed at popular downtown hangout

With the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games approaching, local attention has focused on improving roads, expanding facilities at the Kentucky Horse Park and beautifying the vacant CentrePointe block downtown.

Now, attention is focusing on the dozens of homeless people who gather in Phoenix Park at South Limestone and Main Street, one of the most prominent downtown intersections.

The city has set up a task force to address several related problems: people sleeping on the benches and the grass, panhandling, littering and obscenities shouted at passersby.

In recent months the situation has reached a crisis point, with people defecating in the parking garage stairwell between the public library and Park Plaza apartment building, said Ginny Ramsey, director of the Catholic Action Center, a faith-based charity that works with the homeless.

On Sunday, center officials held a town hall meeting in the park to survey the homeless about their living situations and to "listen to their needs, their hopes, their dreams."

Ramsey said the substance abuse and mental problems of some of the people in the park have existed for several years and should have been confronted before now.

But, if getting the city ready for the World Equestrian Games is the reason the city will pay attention now, "We will use that as an opportunity to address the needs of our homeless brothers and sisters," she said.

One misconception about some of those in Phoenix Park is that they are homeless, said David Christiansen, executive director of the Central Kentucky Housing and Homeless Initiative.

"Most of them have some place to stay at night. Only a minority of these people sleep here," he said. They congregate in the park "to have a little community."

Some of those at Sunday's meeting said the reason they like the park is because it's adjacent to the library, which has restrooms, drinking water and is a place to get out of bad weather. Others said they feel safe there during the day. One woman said she's with people like herself at the park.

Several of the homeless complained about what they consider harassment by Lexington police, saying they've seen officers throw away personal belongings of people who hang out in the park.

Leon Calvin, a homeless man who attended the meeting, suggested the city erect a permanent tent in the open field behind Rupp Arena with chairs, water and bathrooms where people could stay during the day.

The owners of Caro's at 113 South Upper Street said they frequently find someone sleeping in the cafe's doorway in the mornings.

"Generally, they're pretty rude," owner Drew Rasmussen said, adding that he has had people demand a cup of coffee or to use the bathroom.

"Panhandling is the problem. We don't give money out, but we feed people," said his business partner Robin Feeney, who added that she has noticed an increase in people with mental health problems during the past 10 years.

Though Feeney said she is "generally not afraid" to be around the downtown homeless, "some you know not to get near."

Feeney wants to see the city work more closely with businesses and agencies like the Catholic Action Center to tackle the issue.

"Everyone wants to find a solution that is humane and considerate of people who are less fortunate," Christiansen said. "No one wants to be hard-nosed about it."

His organization plans to compile survey results to determine needs. He thinks dialogue with all parties involved, including the homeless, is the way to arrive at solutions.

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