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News: Zoning Defense

Covington nixes homeless center, but okays bigger jail

By Tyler Burton · April 26th, 2001 · News
Two seemingly disparate issues facing Covington City Commission and the city's zoning commission will together decide important issues about Covington's future.

The first is the expansion of the Kenton County Detention Center, which lies directly in the heart of a growing riverside restaurant district. The second is the Life Learning Center, a proposed complex that would act as a headquarters for the disjointed homeless services in the area. The jail project has been all but approved, while the Learning Center was issued -- then forced to return -- a permit to build at Eighth and Washington streets

Many times planning and zoning decisions concern a new restaurant or ways to draw investors to an area that's becoming synonymous with urban renewal. But these two issues will not only draw the outline of development for the city's disadvantaged and homeless; but also for those whose businesses have brought them recent prosperity.

Some might draw a stereotypical connection between prisoners and homelessness, wishing both anywhere else, but it is still a discerning question to ask how these two issues affect each other.

Subhead: A jailer's answer

The sign on the building -- "Kenton County Detention Center"-- is disconcerting. A jail right here, between high-priced riverside condos and T.G.I. Friday's night-time wonderland? A jail seems more appropriate hidden behind rolling miles of state-harvested fields or anonymous industrial blight than in the middle of Covington, directly across the Suspension Bridge. This is surely not a prison in the standard interpretation of things; where is the razor wire?

Kenton County Jailer Terrence Carl has found a way to ease a problem most would consider outside his jurisdiction. Carl lets homeless people stay overnight in the jail. It seems a simple thing, and it is with factual simplicity that he speaks about it.

"I just wasn't aware that a problem existed, really." Carl says

For nearly two years the jail has provided shelter, food and medicine for homeless people, without many of the usual bureaucratic strings.

"When I saw that there were individuals who'd somehow found their way inside the facility and were sleeping in the stairwells, I knew there had to be something I could do," Carl says.

Instead of arresting them, Carl decided to offer a night's stay, or at least free meal and health check-up, without fear of further consequences.

"It wasn't really my program," he says, "just something I saw other offices doing, which I decided to do myself."

Carl says other jails have unofficially had the same practice for years; he just followed their lead, absorbing the extra cost into the jail's own budget.

Some judges used to sentence homeless people to jail for an entire winter so they'd have a warm place to sleep..

"There used to be a lot more of them who came through," Carl say, "but now it's the same four or five almost every night. Sometimes there's more, maybe eight or 10."

He worries more people are suffering rather than taking advantage of this service.

"They're more appreciative [than the inmates];" Carl says. "They come here looking for a place to sleep and something to eat, and we give what we can."

Carl says his office works in coordination with Welcome House on Pike Street, a homeless and poverty assistance center -- and, coincidentally, the other major zoning issue facing Covington officials.

If the jail has room for extra guests, why does it need to expand?

"The prison population is always over 100 percent," Carl says. "That, plus our outdated facility, is the reason for an upgrade. When it comes to the homeless; well, we just make the room."

Instead of placing homeless people in cells with prisoners, the prisoners double up.

Nearly every cell has a couple of occupied mattresses lining the floor.

"I realize this isn't a solution," Carl says, "but it's something, and it's what I can do."

Subhead: Going deeper than just feeling

Surely it is admirable for a jailer to take on some duties as homelessness advocate; but that good deed is not entirely free of political consequences. While the jail was busy shuffling inmates to make room for small numbers of homeless, it was forcing the prisoners into tighter quarters, pushing a population already at or above capacity into a smaller space -- making the push for a new or remodeled jail seem more urgent.

With the price of the remodeled jail hovering around $32.5 million if it remains within the city's Central Business District (CBD), Kenton County was able to justify an increase in the payroll tax to support the jail's expansion. Instead of utilizing any of the other possible sites, the county has opted to rebuild the old facility for nearly twice the price of the other available options. The 3L site, one of the alternates, which lies off of State Route 8 would cost $23 million to $25 million. But alternate sites have been ignored because suburbanites have voiced concern their property values and security would be compromised.

No one wants a jail in their backyard, but the idea of an urban high-rise jail in the middle of Covington seems the worst draw from a barrel of negative necessities, especially for those who have to live under its shadow.

Beth DiGiacinto, who co-owns Scalea's Ristorante with her husband, organized a campaign against the jail. With the assistance of several other business owners and residents, DiGiacinto leads the campaign against the project.

"It would ruin the image we've been working so hard to build;" DiGiacinto says. "When I first told my mom I was going to move to Covington, she was entirely against it. She wouldn't even visit me down here initially, but now she brings her friends to our restaurant."

The Italian-style bistro doubles as a bakery and market selling authentic Italian food.

"Soon this place will be filled with customers, and it just seems to go against everything we've been working to accomplish here, if they go ahead and expand the jail," DiGiacinto says.

A proposal for a new park to honor Kentucky's governors will more than likely be scrapped if the prison is expanded, according to DiGiacinto.

"The mayor had promised us that it would be built; and now it's on hold," she says. "And if the jail stays where it is, I doubt it'll ever be built at all." The park, she says, would have provided a focus for the developing restaurant quarter; but it was to be located exactly on the area where the new facility would sit.

"I understand the need to have a place where the inmates can do their time," DiGiacinto says. "But this will just need to be updated again in a few years time, and in the meantime it will destroy our business."

The expanded jail is projected to reach maximum capacity by 2010. At that point, there would be no option but to build outside the city, because the available space for further expansion would be exhausted.

"But from how it looks," DiGiacinto says, "the jail will be built anyway."

In the wake of the expansion, entrepreneurs' dreams of a green space to accompany gaslight businesses and restored historical residences will have to be changed.

Subhead: Whom have we forgotten?

If this decision were not on the table at the same time as the Life Learning Center, the city's logic might be more palatable. The city zoning commission has rescinded a permit for the center, deciding the land -- a gift to the Learning Center -- should be preserved as a parking lot, in order to spur economic development in downtown Covington. The city commission voted to condemn the property and acquire it through eminent domain so as to keep it a parking lot.

Paul Drury of the Kenton County Planning and Zoning Commission says the site is unfit for the Life Learning Center. The center would have dorm-style beds, violating housing requirements in the CBD. The Center proposed to distribute food to the homeless, making it a restaurant under city regulations. Despite the fact that most homeless people do not own cars, the CBD's zoning requires sufficient parking for its "customers."

But it is the fourth and final consideration that most disturbs Racheal Winters, coordinator of the homeless services project for Welcome House. The zoning commission believes it is unnecessary and redundant to build another facility in an urban area where enough support exists already.

"But this is not the case," Winters says. "In Covington there isn't even a public toilet to use. They're just in restaurants and convenient stores; but if you don't buy anything, most owners won't let you use them."

The proposed center would have satisfied many of these issues for the large segment of the homeless population that lives on the riverbank.

"There's also no place to take a shower." Winters says, "How are these people expected to perform in society without that ability?"

Winters says an initiative by the Northern Kentucky Coalition for the Homeless was responsible for educating many police officers on how to deal with the homeless. Homeless 101, as it was called, aimed to teach the police that homeless people should not be persecuted for fulfilling basic human needs -- such as urinating in a park when there is no better place to do so.

Winters says the community as a whole has only been successful in ignoring the homeless.

"But if I was hoping to provide a service to those who dressed in suits," she says, "I don't think I'd have any problems at all [with the permit]."

Kenton County has offered to relocate her center to one of the outlying cities, such as Ft. Mitchell or Villa Hills, Winters says; but that's too far from the people who need the assistance, she says.

A loose network of services is available in downtown Covington, "but most of these are religious based organizations -- 'Pray to Stay' services," Winters says. "But they require you to live by their rules. If you can't make the evening curfew, then you have to leave. And if you don't go to the Sunday services, then you also can't stay."

This restrictive approach to social service dramatically limits participation, Winters says.

"If you have to work a second or third shift job -- which is what most homeless can easily find -- then you have to make a decision: Do I stay at the shelter and look for something first-shift, or do I take the job and live where I can?" she says.

Most homeless, Winter says, would rather take the job and remain on the street.

"It's an issue of trust," she says, "Trust is one of the most important things we have to establish with anyone who comes in here. Because these people have been taken advantage of for so long, it's very difficult to gain that level of confidence with them. These people are at the lowest of low points, the majority have just stopping trying to improve their quality of life. They just try to survive from day to day. Here we try to show them that it is possible to change."

Members of the Covington City Commission did not return calls.

For more information about the jail campaign, visit www.stopthejail.com.



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