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Covington seeks to raise standards for homeless shelters, but will restrictions force closures?

'It's the start of a conversation'
Posted: 6:44 PM, Oct 15, 2019
Updated: 2019-10-17 17:01:09-04
Emergency Shelter of Northern Kentucky opens for 10th winter, cramped but coping

COVINGTON, Ky. — Covington officials are looking to change the requirements for the city’s homeless shelters in what Mayor Joe Meyer describes as an effort to improve conditions for the people who use them.

But at least one expert in Cincinnati questions whether the language in a draft ordinance would make it virtually impossible for homeless shelters to operate within Covington city limits.

“There is buried within this ordinance the description of a pretty good homeless shelter,” said Kevin Finn, CEO of Strategies to End Homelessness, which oversees the funding of homeless services in Hamilton County. “But this is written much more like they’re trying to close the existing shelters.”

Meyer said that’s not at all the case.

“Our goal isn’t to shut anybody who’s operating down,” Meyer said. “It’s to make sure that when we have these facilities, they’re treating their patients, their clients with dignity, with respect.”

Mayor_Joe_Meyer.jpg
Covington Mayor Joe Meyer

The draft ordinance obtained by WCPO lists a number of restrictions and requirements for shelters that provide temporary housing for people experiencing homelessness. The early draft of the ordinance states:

• No emergency shelters could be located within 1,000 feet of a public or private school, university, college, student housing, senior housing, child care facility, public park, business licensed for on- or off-site alcohol sales or halfway house.

• Shelters would have to provide one ADA compliant male and female toilet-restroom for every 10 beds.

• Shelters also would have to provide one ADA compliant shower for every 10 beds, along with lockers for storage.

• Shelters would have to offer access to toilet and shower facilities 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

• Shelters would have to provide off-street parking at the ratio of one space for every four beds.

• Shelter providers would have to have at least one staff member awake and on duty for every 15 beds when the shelter is open.

‘The start of a conversation’

WCPO tried to contact three homeless shelters in Covington Tuesday but could not reach any shelter operators for comment.

Kim Webb, the executive director of the Emergency Shelter of Northern Kentucky, sent WCPO the following statement after the original story published:

ESNKY wants to continue to work closely with Covington city leaders to tackle head on the problems of homelessness and to provide a pathway forward for the homeless in our area. We both want only the best for Covington and its residents, so it is critical for us to partner with the city to jointly develop solutions. I’m confident we will get to a very good spot that allows ESNKY to continue saving and changing lives, while also allowing our city officials to continue successfully leading the great city of Covington and its residents. At the end of the day, this is about human beings, not codes or obstacles contained within a newly drafted ordinance. In my job, I get to see the best in humanity everyday, and I will continue to look through that lens. I greatly appreciate the on-going communications with Kenton County officials, and the improved communications with the city of Covington.

Finn said based on his experience, many of the proposed requirements would add significant expense to shelters because of the money they would have to spend to add restroom and shower facilities and the employees they would have to hire to stay open and maintain the staffing levels described.

“I think it is fair game to have some sort of standard,” Finn said. “But just what is drafted in this, as of right now, I would tell you that the standard is completely wrong.”

It makes sense to require shelters to be in compliance with fire codes, he said. But very few shelters can remain open for 24 hours, Finn said, adding that he doesn’t understand the parking requirements.

“We’re talking about homeless people,” he said. “They don’t have cars. I don’t know any shelter that could meet that.”

Meyer said the city continues to circulate the draft ordinance to shelter providers to get their thoughts about the requirements and already plans to make changes based on that feedback.

The city plans to change language in the ordinance about location restrictions, for example, so that a shelter can’t be forced to move if a school opens within 1,000 feet after a shelter already has been in operation, Meyer said.

A room inside the Emergency Shelter of Northern Kentucky
A room inside the Emergency Shelter of Northern Kentucky

The city also plans to ease restrictions around the types of felony convictions that would prevent people from being able to work at shelters, he said.

“I think there are probably 15 or 20 or 25 adjustments that we’ve already made,” Meyer said. “It’s the start of a conversation, not the end of a conversation.”

City commissioners started the conversation during a commission meeting April 16, where Commissioner Shannon Smith raised concerns about some of the limitations of the Emergency Shelter of Northern Kentucky in Covington.

“I am an adamant supporter. I adore and respect and admire the work that is done,” Smith said at the time. “What we saw is that we can serve the clients better, and I wanted to start a conversation about how we can do that.”

Meyer said during that meeting that between 2016 and 2018, Covington police, fire and emergency medical technicians made 2,000 runs to the blocks near the Emergency Shelter of Northern Kentucky, saying that indicated “excessive reliance” on the city’s public services.

And Mayor Pro Tem Michelle Williams said in April that a facility open all day would be able to better connect people with services that they need to get back on track.

“A lot of these people who are homeless actually qualify for aid,” she said. “This is a huge issue for the city.”

‘We’re not saying, "Go away" ’

Meyer told WCPO Tuesday that city officials are working to relocate the Emergency Shelter of Northern Kentucky and a Welcome House facility within the city, and they figured it would make sense to get a set of standards in place before those facilities open in new locations.

“This is not, as I’m sure some advocates say, a big plot to ban them from Covington,” he said. “We’re not saying, 'Go away, we’re not going to serve you.' We are saying to shelter operators, 'Make sure your place is safe, compliant with all the standards, and that you don’t expose the homeless to an environment that’s not acceptable to you." ”

Meyer added that the city of Covington shouldn’t have to bear the burden of serving homeless people from throughout the Northern Kentucky region.

“We recognize we have an obligation. We are willing to do our share,” he said. “We are not willing to provide services for all of Northern Kentucky.”

But Finn said that’s a tough fight for any urban area. Across the country people experiencing homelessness in suburban and rural communities tend to seek out services that are concentrated in cities, he said.

“I can understand why any mayor of an urban area might feel that way,” Finn said. “But he’s fighting a battle that has never been won to think that there isn’t going to be that dynamic.”

Meyer said city officials simply want to improve the way homeless shelters serve the people who need them.

“Every time we in Covington want to discuss substantive issues regarding homelessness with operators of homeless facilities, the very first reaction they have is, ‘You hate the homeless,’ and they shut down the conversation,” he said. “And that’s real frustrating.”

The full text of the draft ordinance is below.

City of Cov Proposed ES Ord... by WCPO Web Team on Scribd

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To reach Lucy, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.