Fayette County

Lexington breaks up homeless camps as temps dip. Why some are raising concerns

The city of Lexington’s decision to take down a half dozen homeless camps this week has one advocate concerned the city lacks a comprehensive plan to deal with people who choose to sleep outside.

“The city is using their ability to take down these camps to force these people to move,” said Ginny Ramsey, the director of the Catholic Action Center, one of the city’s homeless shelters. “But they are not coming in necessarily. In fact, very few of them want to come inside because they have barriers like mental illness or PTSD. What we need to do as a community is come up with a long-term plan on how we do this.”

Ramsey said she knows of more than five homeless camps — areas where people sleep outside — that were dismantled in the past week.

City officials defended the move Friday and said before dismantling the camps, they spent weeks working with people to find alternative housing.

Before city code enforcement or Lexington police dismantle a camp, Ruddick’s office and the Hope Center’s outreach program visit the camp and try to find placement for its residents, said Polly Ruddick, the director of Lexington’s Homeless Prevention and Intervention Office,

“We put compassion over clean up,” Ruddick said. “Some of the camps (that were taken down) we have been working with since the beginning of December.”

One camp that came down was near Interstate 75 and Paris Pike. That camp was large with between 10 and fifteen people in it. Ruddick said the city has been working since November with camp dwellers.

“One man had applied for Social Security, but because he missed an appointment, he did not get it,” Ruddick said. “We were able to take him to Social Security. He is now looking for an apartment.”

Ruddick said another man could not stay in one of the city’s shelters because he had a mental illness that made living with other people impossible. The city was able to tap some private funding and put him in a hotel, she said.

Still, Ramsey said not everyone displaced from those camps made it inside. Many move to another outdoor location. Others may stay inside one night and then not return to the shelter or wherever they are placed.

Ramsey said she would like the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council to pass an ordinance similar to the one Louisville approved last year. That ordinance says the city has to give camp residents 22 days notice before it dismantles or cleans up a camp. That ordinance was passed after the city broke up several homeless camps.

Advocates said Louisville did not have a plan for the people displaced and did not give them enough notice. City officials said a spike in the number of Hepatitis A cases in the homeless population was behind the move.

Lexington councilwomen Susan Lamb and Kathy Plomin, who have been active with the city’s homeless prevention boards, did not immediately return phone calls asking for comment.

Ramsey said she’s also concerned that camps were dismantled during the winter. City leaders may think that will make people safer, but those who want to be outside will find a way, she said.

“Taking away the place where they feel safe is not the solution,” Ramsey said. “They need help, but the truth is they may not accept it.”

Ruddick said the city already gives the people in the camps ample notice — sometimes as long as six weeks — before removing the camps. The city dismantles camps during the summer months as well. Some of those cleanups, but not all, are driven by neighbor complaints.

“In the winter, we take extra steps to make sure everybody is sheltered,” Ruddick said. The city also increases its shelter capacity when the temperature plummets. The Hope Center, a men’s shelter on Loudon Avenue, sheltered 247 people Thursday night, which is much more than typical. Ramsey said the Catholic Action Center sheltered 185 people. She has beds for 130.

One of the camps dismantled this week was shot at twice in two days, Ramsey said. That sends a message about how some in Lexington feel about the homeless population, she said.

“We are now vilifying these people who live in these camps,” Ramsey said. “People are shooting at them like they are vermin.”

Ramsey said some of the people who have been displaced have lost their belongings. City officials give people warning prior to a camp coming down. But if someone’s belongings are left there unattended, the city takes them, Ramsey said.

“We are trying to collect items for them,” Ramsey said. “We need sleeping bags, hand warmers and long johns.”

Beth Musgrave has covered government and politics for the Herald-Leader for more than a decade. A graduate of Northwestern University, she has worked as a reporter in Kentucky, Indiana, Mississippi, Illinois and Washington D.C.