Ian Epperson on Lexington’s Homeless

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“Of all the preposterous assumption of humanity, none exceeds the criticisms of the poor by the well-fed, well-housed and well-warmed.” — Herman Melville

Aproblem is developing at Phoenix Park in downtown Lexington. People are using it. The park has become a popular destination for some of the city’s homeless, and that doesn‚t sit well with city leaders as the World Equestrian Games approach.

According to many, it is unacceptable for these particular people to congregate in Phoenix Park. City officials and other downtown stakeholders have pointed to the approaching World Equestrian Games to justify cleaning up Lexington’s image as the world comes to visit, and they say it’s bad for the city’s image to have large numbers of homeless people in high visibility areas downtown.

This, however, isn’t really about the World Equestrian Games. The city has displayed a pattern of hostility toward the homeless in the downtown area over the past 20 years. After all, the city tried to purge a church-run program that fed the homeless from Phoenix Park in 2005, and an April 2008 article in Ace chronicled an attempt in the 80s to rid downtown of the homeless.

So as we continue, let’s not be confused; The World Equestrian Games is not the reason behind our city’s leaders attempt to run the homeless out of Phoenix Park. Rather it’s an opportunity to rekindle an agenda that has existed for over 20 years. That agenda is to make downtown more appealing by purging an unappealing segment of the population from the area.

Let’s deconstruct one of the most common issues the city and the media cite as justification for discouraging homeless folks from using Phoenix Park.

Take the issue cited recently in the Herald-Leader: homeless people sleeping on the grass or on benches in the park.

While it’s true that homeless folks do in fact fall asleep in Phoenix Park let’s compare the situation with another downtown Lexington park. I would like to tell you about a friend of mine who says that one of her favorite things about summer is going to Woodland Park to read and take a nap under a shade tree. To my knowledge no one has ever called their council member to complain about her sleeping in the park. And she’s not the only person dozing off on the
grass in Woodland Park. So what’s the difference? My friend is a pretty girl as opposed to the shabby disposition of the homeless in Phoenix Park. Even though my friend is engaged in exactly the same activity as the homeless downtown, we can be confident that a campaign to rid Woodland Park of pretty girls would most assuredly fail. Meanwhile, however, a campaign to rid Phoenix Park of the homeless takes root.

With double standards such as this in mind we must ask another question. Is this really about people sleeping in the park or are there economic interests at play? I was only partially correct earlier when I stated that the World Equestrian Games is only an excuse to reignite an older, albeit twice failed, agenda to clear the homeless out of downtown.

The honest truth is that many people really will not go near a place where the homeless congregate. As shameful as it may be, when society sees the homeless in a particular place, it has a negative effect on that place’s image. And that does in fact affect economic activity in the city’s core.

The economic motive is evident elsewhere as well. Let’s not forget that the city applied for a federal HOPE VI grant to rebuild the Bluegrass-Aspendale housing project in 2005 but the grant was rejected due to “technical errors.” It seems, the city government didn’t care enough about the project to bother running it through a spell check. But when wealthy folks started moving into downtown condos three blocks over, and crime was a concern to them, the city put the grant together appropriately and it was approved.

But in the case of Phoenix Park let’s think hard about the end game for those who would like to see a homeless-free downtown? Are we treading on slippery soil when we decide that, in Lexington, a specific people group or socio-economic class is not welcome to use public facilities such as parks? Are we really prepared to make such a distinction? Is that who we want to be?

Perhaps the greatest irony of the whole situation is that Phoenix Park was built to commemorate Veterans, a demographic that is among the most likely to end up homeless. Are we prepared to kick homeless veterans out of a park intended to honor them? The bottom line is that we do in fact have a lot of people coming to Lexington next year and making a good impression is a worthwhile effort. So should we plant some trees and implement beautification plans to
make the city’s main corridors more attractive? Sure, sounds great! Should we set up hospitality committees to help visitors get around town? Go for it! Should we make an implicit assault on the civil rights of a specific people group based on how well they reflect the city’s image? Well let me stop you right there. We have already planted trees, and they will still be here after the games. We really are setting up hospitality committees and they will serve to help visitors find their way around town during the games. These are worthwhile efforts and they’re actually accomplishing something. But in regards to the issue of homelessness we‚re not actually dealing with the problem. We‚re not solving

it; we’re just hiding it from the world. So I have an idea.

Let’s start asking a different question. Instead of walking by Phoenix Park and asking “What can we do to get the homeless out of this park?” Let’s ask “What can we do to get the homeless indoors?”

Let’s come together as a city and find a way to end homelessness in our town. Let’s have a long, hard conversation. Churches and religious institutions have a huge role to play as does the city government and the good generous people that call this city home. If we want a homeless free downtown lets commit to getting it. But let’s do it right, let’s not just hide the problem. Let’s dream big dreams and make big plans. Let this be the legacy of the World Equestrian Games.



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