Changing Dynamics of Homelessness

Nov 15, 2012

In Lexington, a series of events mark National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week.  Volunteers walk, sleep and eat like homeless residents.  There’s a Memorial March, a prayer service, and a concert.  It’s all part of an effort to put a face on central Kentucky’s homeless population.  In most minds, the image of homelessness might be a shabbily dressed man loitering along inner city streets.  That image remains true in cities all across the country.  But, it’s not the sole scenario.  Just a few years ago, Ellis Boatley was homeless.  He found himself taking shelter under a bridge in Lexington.  But, today he says no shelter can be found there.

“Yesterday when we went there to see if anybody there, all the stuff, they closed the stuff and thrown down at the bottom of the hill.  They gonna cut down the trees, so people can’t hide.  So most of the people that I know now staying in shelters, are far outside the skirts of town.  Probably on somebody’s farm or something,” said Boatley.

At first Boatley stayed with friends and family, but eventually, he shifted onto the streets.

“I was homeless, but I went to Lancaster and stayed with my sister for a while.  Then she died and I went to another sister.  Then I went with my brother and they said ‘you got to go’ which I can understand, they got their own family.  They got their own problems,” added Boatley.

Boatley eventually ended up at the Catholic Action Center in Lexington.  Thanks to its support, he has been in an apartment for more than three years.   Not everyone has been so fortunate.  Earlier this week, Boatley learned a friend named “Paul,” who he got to know while gathering under that bridge, was found dead inside an abandoned Lexington building.  

David Christiansen with the Central Kentucky Housing and Homeless Initiative says there’s a perception about homelessness and then there is reality.  Christiansen says some people might be surprised to find out just who is homeless.

“Somebody who is sleeping in a park or publicly inebriated or talking to the sky, what we don’t see are folks that might have left a shelter for a job interview and they’re all dressed up and looking really nice or a mom that’s pushing a stroller with her kids might have come from a family shelter,” said Christiansen.

Many homeless men and women struggle with alcoholism or suffer from mental illness, but, more and more, Christiansen says the slow economy is a major factor…putting more people out of work and out of their homes.

“Instead of looking at the individual issues of mental illness, or substance abuse, or domestic violence, it’s really important to look at the larger issue like low wages and poverty and the increasing cost of housing that impact everybody and really fall hardest on the folks at the bottom end of the economic spectrum,” explained Christiansen.

While activists like Christiansen work to address the needs of homeless people, local officials have worked to fix the economy.  For example, Lexington is helping to finance a high end downtown hotel called 21-C.  Mayor Jim Gray claims such economic development can also help homeless Kentuckians.

“That project itself will create a hundred and 50 jobs and most of those for low to moderate income.  Now, those are career opportunity jobs as well because 21c is a growing brand across the country,” said Gray.

The mayor says it’s a ‘parallel track approach’, building up the economy and helping those in need at the same time. 

Over the summer, Gray appointed a city task force to study homelessness and suggest solutions.  Those recommendations are expected in mid January,  but the mayor knows there’s no single solution.

“There are no sound bytes answers to these problems, but if we look at them in a healthy way, a productive way, and a creative way then we will both raise our economy and deal with the problems that exist within our community,” added Gray.

Debra Hensley, who’s co chairs the commission, says they’re giving a great deal of attention to the prevention of homelessness.  Hensley believes it’s those kinds of efforts which can prevent human suffering and save tax dollars.