Emergency shelters for homeless will open during WEG

Two temporary emergency shelters will be open during the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games to give the homeless, many of whom sleep in Phoenix Park during warm weather, a safe place to sleep, Ginny Ramsey, director of the Catholic Action Center, said Tuesday.

"Anybody who wants a bed has got a place to sleep" during the Games, said Ramsey. The challenge will be to get that word out to the homeless, she said.

Between 100 and 130 people regularly sleep on Lexington streets, Ramsey said. Her group expects to take care of 40 to 80 people in the two shelters — one at a Corral Street building owned by Central Christian Church, the other at the Catholic Action Center on East Fifth Street.

The emergency shelters will be open Sept. 22 through Oct. 10. The Games at the Kentucky Horse Park begin Sept. 25 and end Oct. 10.

During the Games, food vendors will set up booths in Phoenix Park to serve visitors to the downtown Spotlight Lexington festival, which will feature live entertainment. The main stage will be at the Courthouse Plaza, just across from Phoenix Park.

The Street Voice Council, made up of homeless and formerly homeless men and women, met Tuesday at the Lexington Public Library next to Phoenix Park to discuss the emergency action.

Officials at the meeting were asked why the city had not taken steps before the Games to deal with the homeless in Phoenix Park.

Jessica Geis, vice president of Downtown Lexington Corp., said "WEG brought to light (that) something needs to be done."

Geis has been working for several months with representatives from the health department, police, the city's social services department, the library and the parks department on the Phoenix Park Homeless Initiative looking for "a long-term solution, not a quick fix."

Downtown Lexington Corp. is working to establish a permanent drop-in center for the homeless, Geis said.

The homeless have "hiding holes" throughout downtown where they sleep, said Ramsey — under the viaduct, in parking garages, in Phoenix Park and in alleys. Those areas will be crowded with people and police during Spotlight Lexington, she said.

She told 40 or so members of the Street Voice Council that they would have to spread the word about the temporary emergency shelters.

Spotlight will be "a great big party for the city," Ramsey said. "But we can't forget our brothers and sisters in need."

More police downtown

Ramsey was asked whether police will arrest the homeless who try to sleep in Phoenix Park during WEG.

"That is not true," Ramsey immediately responded.

Sherelle Roberts, spokeswoman for the Lexington police, said the homeless will not be rounded up and arrested or harassed by police during WEG.

"The parks are public places," Roberts said. "People are allowed there. The homeless will not be treated any differently during Spotlight Lexington."

Police will be on duty 24 hours a day downtown during WEG to provide security for visitors and to protect the food-vendor booths and Spotlight Lexington stages equipped with elaborate sound and light systems, Roberts said.

"There will be police looking out for people's safety and valuables at all times," she said.

Ramsey said she sees the emergency housing as a potential legacy of WEG, "an opportunity to make a bigger connection with people who need help and let them know there is a solution for them."

Many homeless are fearful of asking for help, others think that because of past failures they will not qualify, Ramsey said.

"We hope to form relationships with many of them and help them, eventually, get into their own apartments," she said.

Volunteers needed

Street Voice Council members mostly reacted positively to news of the emergency shelters.

Walter Payne, who is formerly homeless but now has his own apartment, said it would give people "a place to sleep, take care of their hygiene. That is a great thing."

Herman French, who is also formerly homeless and now lives in the residential section of the YMCA on High Street, said: "In my opinion, those sleeping outside need to swallow their pride and accept what is being given to them.

"You got people used to sleeping outside, and you got people coming together trying to help. And it's going to take time for those sleeping outside to get used to that help."

As many as 20 churches from Lexington, Frankfort and Georgetown and one from North Carolina have volunteered to help at the two shelters. They will prepare and serve meals and wash bed linens and blankets every day.

More volunteers are needed, Ramsey said.

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