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Covington Adopts Homeless Shelter Regulations, Looks to Panhandling Signs Next

The Covington city commission approved on Tuesday night new regulations for homeless shelters in a 4-1 vote.

Story highlights:

  • Vote follows months of negotiations with agencies that serve the homeless population after an original draft concerned many
  • Commissioner Denny Bowman offers an emotional dissent, votes against the ordinance
  • Commissioner Michelle Williams said that new signs warning of panhandling are being produced for display
  • Neighbor of new location for Emergency Shelter of Northern Kentucky expresses concern over placement of agency

"This commission has been working on this issue for ten months now," said Mayor Joe Meyer. He thanked the affected agencies for their ongoing communication with the city as revisions to the ordinance were made. "It made this ordinance better and we think the results are worth the effort."

Last fall, a draft of the proposed ordinance prompted concerns from agency operators but on Tuesday most of those concerns appeared to be alleviated.

One of the original proposals would have barred any shelter from operating within one thousand feet of schools, childcare facilities, parks, or alcohol retailers, among others. There were also plans to ensure that shelters reimburse the city for what it would deem as excessive use of emergency responders like police and ambulance calls.

Those ideas were taken out of the ordinance adopted on Tuesday. 

"Our interest all along is to strike a balance between the agencies and the neighbors," Meyer said. "We believe this ordinance will achieve those positive steps."

Meyer also said that the ordinance provides for a six-month window of time from the time of its adoption to its enforcement. "The Operators of existing facilities shall apply for the Permit and submit the required documentation within six (6) months after the date of passage and publication of the ordinance," the ordinance reads.

The mayor also continued his call to surrounding governments to aid in assisting the region's homeless population.

The goal of the ordinance is to ensure that shelters comply with city, state, and federal laws while protecting citizens' constitutional rights, and to monitor that health and safety codes are being followed by the shelters.

The ordinance also allows for city police, fire, and code enforcement officials to inspect any shelter during regular business hours.

Annual license fees will be $100 and any proposed transfer of a shelter's license to another entity will have to be approved by the city's neighborhood services director.

Under the new regulations, the shelters will also have to be open all day, every day while offering access to bathrooms and showers at all times. No single person can stay at a shelter for more than 120 days each year without a "good cause".

Data on homelessness and the people served by the agencies must be provided quarterly to the Kentucky Homeless Management Information System.

Jamie Weaver, vice president of the board of directors at the Emergency Shelter, asked the commission to postpone its vote so that his agency could evaluate the requirements after obtaining its zoning permit for the new location.

Meyer assured Weaver that the city plans to allow the shelter, whose move was facilitated by a transaction involving Kenton County and St. Elizabeth Healthcare, to acquire its zoning permit.

Weaver thanked the mayor and city staff for "the amount of time they took to make progress." "More progress has been made in the past eight months than in years previously," Weaver said.

In addition to Meyer, the ordinance was supported by the votes of Commissioners Tim Downing, Shannon Smith, and Michelle Williams. Commissioner Denny Bowman voted against it, and teared up during his remarks.

"I've gotten a lot more sensitive on issues," Bowman said, referencing his decades of service in the city as an elected official. "And this is one of them."

Bowman suggested that sometimes governments "over-legislate" and said that this homeless shelter ordinance was an example of that in Covington. He said that he was not consulted in the early drafts of the ordinance which included provisions that he called "unnecessary" and "ridiculous."

"What hasn't been talked about over the past seven months is the great work each agency has accomplished," Bowman said, noting the renovation of multiple buildings in the city by some of the agencies. He also noted the payroll taxes contributed to the city by their staffs.

Bowman went on to say that in the 1980s and 1990s, that the city would contribute 15 percent of its federal community development block grant (CDBG) funds to agencies that serve the disadvantaged population. "This ordinance is putting a financial burden on many agencies."

"I ask the mayor," Bowman said, collecting himself and starting to cry. "Send letters to the bars and the absentee landlords who cause our police and fire to respond."

At the conclusion of the meeting, Bowman apologized for his "sensitive outburst" and the mayor said that an apology was not necessary.

Cameron Parker, treasure and member of the board of directors at Fairhaven Rescue Mission, thanked the commission for the changes made to the ordinance. 

"We had concerns about the initial draft but worked with the mayor and (neighborhood services director) Ken Smith and we want to express our thanks and say our experience with the city has been very positive," Parker said. "We felt like our concerns have been addressed."

One resident of the city spoke of his concerns about the Emergency Shelter's move from Scott Boulevard to West 13th Street.

"The county is now putting this thing way out in the Westside," said Ralph Davis, who lives on West 13th Street. He pointed out that many agencies that serve the homeless population are further into downtown. "You're expecting all these people to be able to make it from one to the other here and as we try to help them, this is probably going to hurt them more than help them."

Davis also expressed concern about disruption to his otherwise quiet neighborhood.

Meanwhile, Commissioner Williams said that the city is now revisiting her proposal to crack down on panhandling. She said that Kenton County is currently producing signs similar to ones seen in Bowling Green, Ky. that warn against giving money to panhandlers, and instead to visit a certain website where contributions can be made to support the community's disadvantaged.

Williams said that her concern is safety, for the givers of money and the people soliciting it, particularly close to traffic.

"They are going into the street to get the money and a lot of people are basically throwing change in the street and once the light changes, they are running out in the street to get change," she said. "It's not safe. It's just not."

"I would rather them give money to an organization that can get them off the street and have them in a shelter."

Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher

Photo: Inside the Emergency Shelter of NKY