Fayette County

Homeless fill Lexington's shelters as winter blasts Central Kentucky

People needing a warm place waited for lunch at the Catholic Action Center on Wednesday. Temperatures are expected to stay below freezing until Friday.
People needing a warm place waited for lunch at the Catholic Action Center on Wednesday. Temperatures are expected to stay below freezing until Friday. Lexington Herald-Leader

Benjamin Bond, 67, dropped by Lexington's Catholic Action Center at noon Wednesday to savor a bowl of hot chili and just enjoy being inside.

Too cold out on the street, he said.

"I'm usually hanging around the corner of Third Street and Martin Luther King, playing my harmonica and trying to pick up a little extra change," Bond said. "But it's too cold to play today. I can't keep my hands warm."

Lexington's low temperature Wednesday morning was 10 degrees, according to the National Weather Service, and the day's high barely topped freezing. Another shot of bitterly cold air is expected Thursday, and temperatures may not climb above the low 30s until Sunday. Snow is likely Friday.

In such weather, homeless shelters and similar facilities do a brisk business.

The Catholic Action Center on East Fifth Street was filled with people much of the day Wednesday, many of them heavily bundled up and looking for a hot meal and a few minutes' relief from the cold.

Ben Bond isn't homeless, but he has been at various times in his life. And he says life on the street isn't much fun when the temperature nears single digits, as it has this week.

"You can't run from the cold," he said. "You've got to be tough to be homeless in Lexington in the winter. You've got to be a Thoroughbred, is what I call it."

Ginny Ramsey, action center co-founder, said Wednesday that the numbers of people visiting the center or seeking overnight shelter at the Community Inn, which the center also operates, have increased, even though the cold snap is only a few days old.

She said the Community Inn has been opening 15 minutes early each evening this week so homeless people don't have to stand in the cold, waiting to be admitted.

Meanwhile, visits to the Salvation Army's shelter for women and children in Lexington haven't increased noticeably during the cold spell, according to Major Debra Ashcraft. But then, the 152-bed shelter has been running over capacity for the past year.

"We've had a 25 percent overall increase in people coming to our shelter from 2011 to 2012," Ashcraft said. "That tells you we have more homeless women and children in the area. That's scary in itself."

More light could be shed on the extent of homelessness in Lexington next week.

Mayor Jim Gray's commission on homelessness is to submit its report to the Urban County Council on Tuesday. Councilman Steve Kay, the anel's co-chairman, said the report will show that the homeless population is increasing. He said a draft of the report is available on the city's website: Lexingtonky.gov.

Meanwhile, volunteers will hit Lexington streets Jan. 31 to conduct the city's count of homeless people. Results from that survey can affect the amount of federal relief grants the city receives.

Ramsey says that even a few days of bitterly cold weather make more hardships for the homeless.

"When the weather gets ridiculous, people know they're just not going to be able to stay outside," she said. "Some of them can make it fine at around 20 degrees if the wind isn't blowing. But when it's cold all day and bitter at night, they've got to have a break."

Garuy McKinley, kitchen manager at the action center, said more people come in for lunch, or just hang around the center to enjoy the warmth.

"We have more people in here all day when it's cold," he said. "Just coming for a while to warm up, watch a little TV or use the phone ... it's really a godsend."

Ashcraft said the Salvation Army is getting increased requests for warm clothing, particularly hats, gloves and mittens.

Anyone wishing to donate such items should bring them to the Salvation Army offices at 736 West Main Street, she said.