Fayette County

Homeless urge city committee for three-week notice before tearing down their camps

Donald and Missy Clinton were living in a homeless camp this winter in Lexington that was cleared. They lost all of their belongings.

“Imagine it being 20 degrees and you don’t have any blankets,” Missy Clinton said.

The Clintons urged a committee of the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council during a meeting Tuesday to pass an ordinance that would give people living in homeless camps at least 21 days before removing a camp in addition to other protections. 

The issue of how the city clears homeless camps first surfaced this winter when Lexington cleared multiple homeless camps when temperatures plummeted below zero in January.

The council’s General Government and Social Services Committee made no final decisions during Tuesday’s meeting but will revisit the issue of homeless camps at its May 14 meeting.

Polly Ruddick, director of the city’s Office of Homelessness Prevention and Intervention, told the committee the city gives homeless people time to collect belongings before shutting down a camp. It also sends out a street outreach team to help connect people living in those camps with services.

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Polly Ruddick has named Director of the Office of Homelessness Prevention and Intervention by Mayor Jim Gray. LUCG

The city has cleaned up 14 homeless camps since July 1.

Nine of the 14 camps were on private property. The city has no control over the clean up of camps on private property.

“They can come in the next day,” Ruddick said.

Ruddick said they clean up the camps because of public safety and public health concerns. But there has also been isolated incidents with homeless camps being shot at and attacked.

“We see a lot of couples and a lot of adult males, some who have been denied services,” Ruddick said of who is living in camps. There is no homeless shelters that allow married couples to stay together.

Charles Bowers told the committee he’s had to sleep outside in makeshift camps on and off for the past several years. 

“The shelters can only hold so many of us,” Bowers said answering one of the reasons why people choose to sleep outside. “If you are out and trying to work... you can leave and you’re home’s gone.” 

Bowers said if the city gave people living in camps time, they would not lose all of their belongings when the camps come down.

The city is also making changes to how it alerts people living in camps and making sure all city departments that deal with homeless camps send the same notices and give people information about services. Other city departments involved in clearing camps include Lexington Police, streets and roads and code enforcement.

Ginny Ramsey, co-founder of the Catholic Action Center, one of the city’s homeless shelters, said Ruddick’s office is not involved in every camp clean up on public property. 

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Ginny Ramsey, co-founder of the Catholic Action Center

For example, one of the camps recently taken down was on state-owned property. That’s the reason why the ordinance is needed, she said. The ordinance would not apply to camps on private property. But the city could encourage private property owners to follow similar guidelines.

Homeless advocates also don’t want the camps to be cleaned up from November to March unless there is a documented health and public safety concern. Ramsey said Catholic Action Center will also send its street outreach team to the camp to help connect people with services. Catholic Action will also provide 30 days of storage.

“The compassionate caravan will be part of the solution,” said Ramsey. “We want an ordinance for the simple fact of consistency. We ask it be done with compassion and done with a process.”