Fayette County

Neighbors concerned about homeless day center scheduled to open Monday

Mark Holland cut trim strips as he installed carpet Thursday in the New Life Day Center, set to open Monday at 224 North Martin Luther King Boulevard. The building is the former home of the Fraternal Order of Police Hall.
Mark Holland cut trim strips as he installed carpet Thursday in the New Life Day Center, set to open Monday at 224 North Martin Luther King Boulevard. The building is the former home of the Fraternal Order of Police Hall.

A day shelter for the homeless is scheduled to open Monday on North Martin Luther King Boulevard, but neighbors have expressed their unhappiness, many saying they found out about the New Life Day Center on Friday morning.

"I'm appalled at the way this has been handled. Why, as a neighborhood, were we not included in discussions about this?" said Paul Purcell, owner of Paul's Foreign Auto Works, two doors from the shelter. "I get a flier under my door on Friday saying we're having a meeting on Saturday and the center is opening Monday."

The center is planned to open at 224 North Martin Luther King Boulevard in the former Fraternal Order of Police Hall. Hours will be 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Lonnie Cope, owner of Lonnie's Professional Hair Styling, at 197 North Martin Luther King, said Friday: "It's not right. This is being shoved down our throat. We didn't know anything about it."

Steve Polston, executive director of the New Life Day Center said, "Our objective is to get the homeless off the street, out of the weather during the daytime. ... We want to operate a very well-run day center and make the Lexington community and this neighborhood a better place."

Food will not be served — at least in the immediate future — and people cannot spend the night.

"We're going to start simple and perfect our core services," he said. Folding chairs will be set up in the assembly area where people can sit. There will be a television set, water fountains, bathrooms and lockers, which will be available for bag storage during the day.

The lockers "will be a big attraction in getting people," Polston said. "The homeless can put their arms around what they own. That is why storage is so important. At night, they have to lay on top of their bag to keep somebody from stealing it."

Polston said there are options for housing the homeless at night, and he said more than 20 organizations and churches have programs to feed the homeless.

However, there are few places for the homeless to go during the daytime, a situation that leads them to congregate downtown at Phoenix Park and the Lexington Public Library, he said.

On Saturday morning, Polston met with neighbors, business owners, educators and elected officials. In response to their concerns, Polston made several concessions.

A staff member will be at the center at 7 a.m. each day. Homeless people will come and go via the center's back entrance, not the front door on Martin Luther King. They will smoke out back.

At-large Urban County Council member Steve Kay, who lives a block from the center, asked Polston to develop criteria for measuring negative impact the center might have on the neighborhood. If the negative impact can't be ameliorated, "you close this facility," Kay said. Polston agreed.

First District council member Chris Ford expressed concern about the lack of communication between Polston and neighbors: "I don't understand why we were not engaged sooner," Ford said.

Polston said he would meet with neighbors to hear their concerns and suggestions at 6 p.m. on the second Tuesday of each month.

Tom Bullock, who renovated three properties on North Limestone starting in 2005, and has his law office in one of the buildings, said a concern that jumped out at him when he heard about the center was the number of education facilities within a couple of blocks of the center: Sayre School, Saints Peter & Paul Day Center, Lexington Traditional Magnet School, Transylvania University, and the Living Arts & Science center.

"When you're dealing with homeless people, you often have mental health issues. I don't know that it's wise to put people with mental health issues near so many students," Bullock said. "Really, I think the biggest issue is the safety of the students. That's where the rubber meets the road. I think this is going to be a real problem with a lot of parents."

Finding a location has been a major challenge for Polston, who began actively working on homeless issues five years ago. "This is the eighth site we looked at," he said. The FOP Hall is in an area zoned B2-A, which allows a broad range of uses, including a homeless center.

Polston said he waited until he had a lease signed and money to operate before going public with his plans.

The center's first-year budget of $150,000 has been raised from private donations, he said. No city funds are involved in the project, said Susan Mills, commissioner of social services.

The building housing the New Life Center is owned by the FOP, a private police organization.

Polston is affiliated with the Lexington Leadership Foundation, a non-profit organization that he described as faith-based. The foundation signed the one-year lease for the building.

"I spent the better part of 2009 and 2010 trying to learn about day centers," Polston said. He visited day centers in Knoxville, Louisville and Indianapolis. Volunteers from Knoxville came to Lexington to train staff and volunteers.

Part of Polston's interest in homeless causes is very personal. He said his daughter has been homeless. She is now in a recovery facility in Michigan, he said.

Polston, 68, who said his professional career was turning around failing companies, said he has knocked on doors in the neighborhood in recent days to introduce himself.

But Clayton Chambliss, headmaster of Sayre School, whose back parking lot is almost directly across the street from New Life Center, said: "He didn't knock on Sayre School's door, and we're a pretty big neighbor."

"Our school is downtown," Chambliss said. "We try to make that part of our educational process. Our responsibility is to teach our children to be safe and respectful of other human beings."

Sayre already has an issue with homeless "riding their bikes through the parking lot and checking car doors," he added.

Ginny Ramsey, co-director of the Catholic Action Center, said the city "badly needs" a daytime drop-in center. "No one is going to urinate on bushes if they have a toilet," she said. The Catholic Action Center, 400 East Fifth Street, provides food, shelter, restrooms and showers for the homeless during the day.