Merlene Davis: Festival offers chance to get to know the homeless

Crafts for the First Annual Festival of the Streets: a celebration of the gifts and talents of those who call the streets of Lexington their home on Thursday October 10, 2013 in Lexington, Ky. Photos by Mark Cornelison | Staff
Crafts for the First Annual Festival of the Streets: a celebration of the gifts and talents of those who call the streets of Lexington their home on Thursday October 10, 2013 in Lexington, Ky. Photos by Mark Cornelison | Staff Herald-Leader

Ellis Boatley talks like a man who has been through a lot, and he has. Boatley has spent years living on the streets of Lexington and other cities.

"I was 32 and still acting like I was 16," Boatley said last week. "I looked back and I said I ain't changed, ain't matured, just because of drugs and alcohol. Once the learning stops, seems like you just stop."

Boatley has changed now. He is the chairman of the Street Voice Council, a communication and advocacy group with 60 to 80 members who are or who have been homeless.

And now that he has changed, he's hoping he can help change the attitudes many others in society cling to regarding those who live on the streets.

"They've had a festival for Latinos and a festival for gays, so we said we need a festival for the streets," Boatley said. While we were talking people around him were preparing crafts that will be sold at the first Festival of the Streets on Oct. 19 in Lexington.

"I'm doing this to show society that poor people have talents, too, and shouldn't be overlooked. We have feelings and we respect one another," he said.

The festival will feature pottery and crochet crafts made by several people who have been helped by the Catholic Action Center. The crafts are for sale and proceeds will benefit those who created them.

Eight-foot by 4-foot boards will display poetry pieces and the stories of some of the people we often pass by and try not to notice.

"They are stories of human beings who have shared their barriers and their hopes," said Ginny Ramsey, co-founder of the Catholic Action Center which has been an advocate for the homeless since 2000.

There also will be food available that was prepared by four former homeless veterans who are enrolled in the College of Technical Education's Culinary Arts Program. And a tattoo artist, who has lived on the streets, will be painting faces and hands, Ramsey said.

Games such as dominoes, chess and corn hole will be ongoing. And just like at any other festival, there will be music.

Ramsey estimates there are nearly 250 homeless people in Fayette County, although a true assessment is difficult to get.

Still, the ones I spoke with last week want us to get to know them better.

"We want to show people we are not like the stereotypes," said Steven Dykes, who said he has been on the streets for about 13 years, but now lives at Divine Providence Way, a ministry of the Catholic Action Center.

"We are not like we are portrayed, not the drunks, drug addicts and axe murderers. We want to show society that we are people and that we can cope. Some of us just have been dealt a bad hand."

And often efforts to regain a foothold on "normalcy" — which includes finding a job — are stymied once employers figure out you are homeless, he said.

"It is hard to get a job when you are carrying a backpack on your back," he said. Fortunately for him, "Ginny Ramsey gave me a place to stay. I don't have to carry a backpack any more."

"I call her St. Ginny," said Ben Hancock, who is serving as co-chair of the event.

Hancock is in a wheelchair because his legs were frostbitten earlier this year while he was sleeping in his barn. He said he lost everything he had earned as a realtor in Mexico after his wife was diagnosed with leukemia and then suffered a series of strokes.

The frostbite was left untreated for three weeks, he said, and was severe by the time he visited an emergency room. He has lost one leg and the other still has unhealed wounds.

When the hospital released him, he had nowhere to go, he said. He landed at the Community Inn where Ramsey was told of his condition and got him a place to stay at Divine Providence.

"I pray it doesn't happen to you or any of your readers," Hancock said. "But it is amazing the people I've met. Some with doctorates. There are people I've met who can handle just about anything. So if you can't find the right people to hire, just check with the homeless and give them a try again."

To help organize the event, two AmeriCorps service members are working with the group. Chris Summers and Darian Kinder, both of Greenville, S.C., have seen some homeless people be treated badly.

Kinder, who is Ramsey's granddaughter, said she bypassed her first year of college to work with the homeless.

"I've learned to connect with people better," she said. "Get to know the people and you'll see that everyone is just like everyone else. All are really good people."

Summers was dismayed by the way some neighbors vocally opposed The Wayfinder Center, on Price Road, a proposed service center and shelter for Lexington's homeless population.

"I just want these people, at least if they are going to stereotype and stigmatize the homeless, to come down and meet these people," he said.

In 2011, 36,897 homeless people died on the streets nationwide, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. Boatley said he hopes the new numbers will be much lower.

"When a person lives on the streets for a long time, their health declines," he said. "They are sleeping bone to concrete. They are sleeping in bushes."

The items on display during the festival just show how talented the homeless population is, he said. But what is more important is having the general public interact with them and get to know them.

"The homeless don't have prejudices," he said. "Anyone from any walk of life can be brought down.

"We don't want to elevate ourselves more than anybody else, but we ain't beneath anyone either. We are just as equal as anybody else."

The first Festival of the Streets, a celebration of the talents of those who call the streets of Lexington home

When: 11-4 p.m. Oct. 19.

Where: Robert F. Stephens Courthouse Plaza, 120 N. Limestone.

Cost: Free.