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Ginny Ramsey: On fire for the homeless

The forest green Buick glides through Chevy Chase, a tail light chipped and an interior door panel missing.

Inside are a massive number of garbage bags for various uses, the donated day-old remnants of fragrant Starbucks pastry, and the most influential Lexingtonian you don't know.

Ginny Ramsey, 57, is not running for office. She doesn't regularly hobnob with the Bluegrass elite. And although her daily commute begins at her home in Chevy Chase, it will continue — often until well after dark — into areas of town that are invisible to many in Lexington.

It would be simple to call Ramsey an unpaid advocate for Lexington's homeless.

Simple, but somehow not quite right.

Ramsey, who co-founded The Catholic Action Center in 2000, has helped build an army of volunteers — at least 40 to 50 a day — into a coalition that does more than provide a shelter with beds for the most dire cases of homelessness. It is a last refuge for those who have nowhere else to go.

But it's not enough, Ramsey figures, simply to get people off the street. She helps put homeless people into permanent housing, prepares them for jobs and advanced education, directs them to medical treatment.

She helps them become their own advocates in the community.

She dreams of a city "where the homeless are no longer objects of our charity, but our friends."

But, from day to day, Ramsey's job running a non-profit devoted to the homeless, is not all sweetness. There are gritty realities, including stretching a budget made up entirely of private donations, dealing with neighborhood controversies and occasional physical violence among those served by the center.

In the middle of the fight

When there is a dispute about Lexington's homeless, you can bet Ramsey and her Catholic Action Center will be smack in the middle of it.

Ramsey was taken to court in 2002 and charged with violating the city's zoning ordinance by operating a community center in a residential area, a misdemeanor. Rather than back off, she responded to neighborhood concerns defiantly: "In the past 20 months," she wrote in the Herald-Leader, "three of these human beings died on our streets from the cold — three invisible people of our community."

The charges were eventually dismissed, and the center at 400 East Fifth Street was allowed to remain open on chilly nights.

In 2009, another thorny issue arose when the center tried to buy a home on Detroit Avenue for convicted sex offenders. After the neighborhood raised a ruckus, Ramsey said the center would not use the house for that purpose.

Says Ed Clark, one of the neighbors who fought Ramsey on the Detroit Avenue house purchase: "Ginny Ramsey didn't listen to anything we said. She was pigheaded, hardheaded. ... She tried to bully her way through, and it didn't work. She came up against some people who were a little bit stronger than she was."

How does she keep fighting?

"I have a God-given thick skin," she says.

She needs it.

The disputes often risk more than verbal warfare. On March 15, Charles Howard Dunson Jr. was charged with first-degree assault after police say he attacked another man, Greg Gross, with a brick at the center. The victim suffered a severe head injury.

In January, there was a stabbing. Ramsey frets about such incidents but acknowledges the people she serves sometimes have emotional problems, explosive tempers and limited conflict resolution skills.

She won't let it drive her away.

A day on the streets

Ramsey's day generally begins at the Starbucks on High Street, where she picks up leftovers and a latte. Sometimes Magee's Bakery on Main Street will have some day-old baked goods to share, too.

Then it's over to check in at the Catholic Action Center, where the main room is all chairs and tables; this is a place to shelter from the chill, not to live.

Ramsey and her colleagues have other ideas about how to find permanent shelter, permanent employment, a more vigorous voice in Lexington.

Ramsey does not call those with whom she comes into contact "clients."

She calls them friends.

On one wall of the Catholic Action Center one morning this February, an enterprising guest had shoved three chairs together and draped a blanket over them to create a makeshift bed. Others sat quietly, watching TV, absorbing the warmth and nibbling donuts. One young woman bowed her head over a Harry Potter book, transfixed, flown from East Fifth Street to Hogwarts.

Going with Ramsey to the Catholic Action Center is like going to Graceland with Elvis: Everyone wants to talk to this small woman with dark cropped hair and dressed in multiple layers and sturdy shoes.

A tired-looking woman tells Ramsey she has been living in an abandoned house and has frostbite on her feet. Ramsey is matter-of-fact: Get out of the house, Ramsey tells her. Come stay here until we can get a nurse practitioner to look at you, she says; in the meanwhile, we'll wrap your feet in extra blankets.

A middle-aged man tells Ramsey he wants a bus ticket to West Virginia. His story seems sad at first, but it's also a shifting tale of woe that changes at each telling.

Ramsey can't give him a bus ticket; she instead gives him the name of a church that may be able to help.

The first barrage of requests processed, Ramsey drives over to 614 East Seventh Street, another branch of the Catholic Action Center's operation: GodsNet.

The GodsNet complex is a sprawling beehive: Volunteers bob in and out. Clients line up for the clothing bank. There's a small laundromat.

Next door, food is stored, as are out-of-season clothes and furniture and linens for the formerly homeless moving into permanent housing. There are also boxes of what Ramsey calls God's Worms: critters that are transferred to community gardening projects.

Folks at GodsNet also care for a man who daily stops by in states of furor on a number of subjects: He wants a debit card. He wants to marry one of the student social workers. He wants cigarettes. GodsNet staffers keep track of his medication and give him transportation.

Ramsey insists this is not work. It's what she feels called to do.

"You see the people we deal with, they're the most fragile," she says.

'He changed me'

Judy McLaughlin, a retired Lexington Community College instructor who organized the Catholic Action Center with Ramsey, remembers the ministry's first few months as financially precarious: "It was definitely touch and go."

Even now, Divine Providence Inc. — the organization that oversees the Catholic Action Center — has a budget of only about $150,000 a year.

Ramsey and McLaughlin met at the Cathedral of Christ the King, where Ramsey was working on community justice issues, such as protesting the death penalty. The two women wanted to do more.

"We were very naive," McLaughlin says. "Neither of us knew as much about the lives of the people we deal with."

Says Jim Embry, the community garden organizer who works with Ramsey on local food projects: "Some people want to meet and they want to meet, but nothing gets done. But Ginny and the Catholic Action Center operation, they get things done."

Ramsey helped organize the Street Voice Council, a group of homeless and formerly homeless people who meet regularly at the Lexington Public Library's Main Street branch. Binta Baraka, one of the co-chairs, is a spokeswoman, writer and former inmate.

Baraka was sentenced in 2003 to spend 10 years in prison after pleading guilty to manslaughter for killing her father — who was felled by a heart attack as he threatened to kill her.

She was released in August 2007, and, now, her life has changed. She has moved into an apartment and is active in homeless affairs. Ramsey is proud of her.

"He changed me," Ramsey says of her faith in God. "So if He changed me, my thought is, He can change anybody."

'On fire with something'

Ramsey, although a Catholic school alumna, has not been a lifelong churchgoer and only in recent years became active in the Catholic church.

For 17 years, Ramsey, her husband Jim, a computer consultant, and their two children sampled everything from Unitarianism to Lutheranism. Nothing clicked.

She started attending Masses at the Newman Center and was inspired by the fervor of the congregation, thinking: "Those kids are on fire with something. I want that."

Ramsey says there are gaps in city services that only churches can fill: "It's nice to have a nice pretty church that everyone gets together in, but you have to do more than that."

Ramsey's work can be physically draining, commuting from place to place over long days.

She has a medical condition called "essential tremor," which causes her to shake mildly. It doesn't hurt, she says, and she takes medication for it.

Sometimes, she admits, she will skip that medication because it makes her tired.

Several evenings a week, for a treat, she will try to be home in her pajamas by 7 p.m., watching Wheel of Fortune, her favorite TV show.

But most days, it's all about the service. "Because they suffer from homelessness ... and other mental barriers doesn't make them less human," she says of the people with whom she works daily. "How we treat them makes us less human."

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