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Lexington police won’t be arresting more homeless people

Lexington police won’t be arresting more homeless people

Lexington Police Chief Lawrence Weathers is photographed at the department’s headquarters in downtown Lexington, Ky., on Monday, Dec. 11, 2023.

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Lexington Police Chief Lawrence Weathers said Wednesday a new law in Kentucky that criminalizes homelessness won’t mean more arrests by his officers.

“That’s the question of the day, and the only answer I’ve got is nothing’s going to change for us,” Weathers said in his most comprehensive public comments on the bill, which goes into effect on July 15.

“We talk about it all the time, and the truth of the matter is these situations are different, they vary from person to person. “If we get a call, our first priority is not to arrest — that’s not even going to be our second, third, fourth, or fifth priority.”

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Instead, Weathers said, police will do what they’ve been doing: Identify needs and contact resources like the Office of Homeless Prevention, the Community Paramedicine unit and such partners as the nonprofit Catholic Action Center.

“The majority of the people we contact that don’t have any place to go don’t end up in jail,” Weathers said. “And that’s because our officers have the discretion and they have lists of resources at their fingertips. And I think that’s the best way to handle it.

“And we’re going to continue to handle it that way.”

House Bill 5, the Safer Kentucky Act, is a wide-ranging omnibus bill created by the Republican super-majority to address what it perceived was a soft-on-crime problem in the wake of criminal justice reform. It creates a host of new criminal charges and longer prison time for such crimes as carjacking and drug dealing.

The most controversial piece of the bill was the homeless section, which would allow police to charge people trying to sleep in their cars or camp in places not designated for camping, including sidewalks, under bridges, or in parks, parking lots, garages or doorways.

Advocates begged lawmakers not to make the lives of the unhoused more difficult with fines that cannot be paid and jail time that exacerbate their problems, but they were ignored.

One of those advocates was Ginny Ramsey, director of the Catholic Action Center, who said she was glad to hear Weathers’ statement.

“We hope they will contact partners before they remove them from where they are sleeping,” she said. “Sometimes the response is not coordinated through the Office (of Homeless Prevention) the way it’s supposed to be. “That’s what we’ve been asking for.”

Rodney Rittenbury, for example, said that on April 30, he and his wife were sleeping under a bridge in the Eastland neighborhood when they were awoken by police with guns drawn. Six other people were also awakened from sleep.

“We just ran,” he said. “I didn’t want to get shot.”

Lexington police said they had never gotten a date of the incident or a complaint to investigate.

Ramsey held a news conference Wednesday to release her group’s homeless count. The city’s annual count is done according to federal rules.

This winter, the count was 825 unhoused people in Lexington. The Catholic Action Center’s count, done last August, makes a broader sweep to include people in jail, in hospitals and in motels.

The count also includes the federal McKinney-Vento program that serves Fayette County students experiencing homelessness. The current number is 1,097, although it fluctuates throughout the year.

Ginny Ramsey of the Catholic Action Center at a press conference on her group’s homeless count in Lexington Linda Blackford

Earlier this spring, the city allocated $400,000 through Goodwill Industries to provide a deposit and first month’s rent for homeless families with children.

TC Johnson, who runs the McKinney-Vento program for Fayette County schools, said 58 percent of her students for 2023-24 were elementary age from preschool up, and 15 percent of the kids lived with their families in cars and campgrounds.

She was worried that HB 5 would break up families with more arrests.

“Are we going to re-traumatize our kids,” by arresting their parents? she asked.

She said Fayette needs more transitional housing for families who are evicted, or like two recent cases, lose their homes to fire.

Working on solutions

The city is working on a feasibility study for a new shelter, said Charlie Lanter, who heads up the Office of Homeless Prevention. Lexington’s shelters are still set up on a 1980s model, one for women and children and one for men.

“Families don’t want to separate, and we’re seeing people with pets,” he said. “We want to see how we can best serve the population.

“We understand the challenges related to homelessness,” he said, “and those aren’t changing on July 15.”

Lexington has some of the highest per capita rental and housing costs in the nation. Over the decades, city officials spent a lot of time blocking development without working on the inevitable problems of housing costs that would result.

But the city is changing zoning with incentives for denser housing, fewer parking requirements, and more money in the Affordable Housing Trust Fund to help developers build more.

“The primary goal is people not experiencing homelessness in the first place,” Lanter said.

He added that if people are worried about a homeless population, they call 311 and get connected to his office instead of calling the police.

But it’s still a huge problem across our city, and Ramsey and others are calling the community to do more.

On Aug. 22, Rev. Richard Gaines is to host a summit at Consolidated Baptist Church titled, ‘Yes, In Our Backyard.’ It’s a national movement that will bring churches into the discussion of how to better serve the unhoused with everything from allowing people to stay in their parking lots to actually building shelter, Ramsey said.

“If we miss the opportunity, how many more years will we wait for the opportunity to come again?” Grimes asked at Wednesday’s news conference.

“This will continue to grow if we don’t take this on head-on. “The church community has to step up.”

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