Editor’s Note: This is the first in a multi-part series on the growing homeless problem in Scott County.
Georgetown Police went into a home on Main Avenue a couple of weeks ago where 23 people were staying, four of them living at the address, the rest living in a garage or sleeping on the floor.
“It is the same addicted and homeless population we have been seeing at different locations,” Georgetown Police Chief Michael Bosse said.
That incident is indicative of a problem that city and county officials have seen spike in recent months.
“I have had more calls about homeless in the last three months than the entire 14 years I have been on the force,” said GPD Officer Rodney Johnson.
The mayor’s office has also seen an uptick in calls from residents about homeless in the last couple of months, said Arlene Wilson, administrative assistant to Mayor Tom Prather.
That increase in activity has led to more work for a Georgetown Police Department that is already stretched thin.
“We’ve definitely seen an increase in that population,” Bosse said. “Unfortunately we are staffed to respond to those calls, but not staffed to stay ahead of the problem.”
As a result, officers are adding areas where homeless are known to set up camps to their patrol areas on a regular basis. Those campsites have sparked the increase in calls from residents throughout the city who are looking out their window and seeing tents on nearby properties.
“They are setting up at different places,” Bosse said. “One of the ways of dealing with it once we find the encampment site is to contact the owner of the property. If it is abandoned or no one is there, we ask them to clean it out to make it less visible. We also work with code enforcement when we can’t identify the owner and get permission to clean those areas out.”
“The hard part for the city is that some of the property is privately owned,” said Lt. Josh Nash. “And the city has been good about going in and cutting things back to keep camps from being set up. But (for) private property, it is up to the owner to keep it set up.”
Those campsites are located all across the city, usually in areas hard to spot. They are away from main roads, in heavy brush areas and along creeks and streams away from view.
Johnson and Nash are among the GPD crew that know where and what to look for, and what the effects of the homeless population on the city.
“They leave their trash everywhere; they don’t pick up after themselves. That’s what people are getting tired of,” Nash said. “In the Peninsula neighborhood, they have had multiple vehicle break-ins, and I can’t say that we have caught anybody and proven they are homeless, but we think the homeless population is causing some of those crimes because it helps fund their addiction. People are walking through their yards and they look rough.”
Johnson just happened to stumble on a new location recently, he said. While talking to someone at the entrance to Georgetown Centre off the bypass across from Dairy Queen, he looked to his right and saw cardboard boxes and trash behind the bushes where someone had been sleeping.
Then behind Big Lots, using a discarded couch as a stepping point, they were able to access a trail where a man had set up camp by the creek and under the overpass. Unlike many other areas they see, this man had a couch, chair, tables, rugs and a tent to sleep in.
Nash and Johnson had seen him recently and advised him to pack up and move. They looked through the site and engaged the man if he had anywhere to go or any family. He said he had family and a job, but it was his choice to be homeless. The officers gave him two days to get the belongings packed up and moved because it was state property.
“We are not really trying to arrest people. You can’t arrest someone for being homeless,” Nash said. “But you can get them on trespassing if they don’t leave. We try to give them a chance to move.”
Oser Landing is another spot they have spotted homeless camps and areas around Elkhorn Creek, they said. Another popular site is called “Pete’s Hole.” You have to cross railroad tracks, walk down a gravel road, then cut through the brush to get to the campsite near a rock wall and the creek. Nash said they have had complaints from residents along Payne Avenue of people walking through their yards to access “Pete’s Hole.” No one was at the site, but they had burn piles, dishes, canned goods, signs greeting visitors reading “This is Tent City. Refuge 4 The houseless & home 2 The broken hearted. Wellcome all (sic).” There was also a separate area marked as the bathroom.
The outdoor bathroom raises concerns about health risks for not only them, but the rest of the population if that trash and waste gets into the waterways. And as dry as it is, there is the threat of a fire.
Royal Spring Park is another place they have had to respond to. Tuesday, one man said he was from western Kentucky and was in Georgetown visiting his sick brother, but his sister-in-law wouldn’t let him stay there. The man had food from AMEN House and was sitting under the picnic shelter charging his phone. Another man who Johnson said was schizophrenic was asleep on a bench. Nash said people can be in the parks until dark.
“We started noticing it when people were calling about people camping in the city parks and leaving their tents and not picking up their trash. That was our addict population,” Nash said. “I think the one by the overpass was found after an accident and someone looked over the bridge and spotted it. Some homeless we run into are very neat. The addicts we run into are not and very messy.”
That means police officers are cleaning out campsites and areas homeless have been, again adding to their workload.
“You get calls from residents of suspicious people hanging out. Rolling through the parks at night. Trash everywhere,” Nash said. “When we find a campsite, our guys are spending time picking up the trash, storing anything defined as property, so that takes up space and an hour of time logging it.”
The increase in calls has caught the attention of various city leaders. Scott County Judge-Executive Joe Pat Covington has put together a task force to search for a solution.
The problem is getting the homeless to seek the resources available, whether it be the Gathering Place, AMEN House, various churches or other groups.
In the meantime, Bosse and law enforcement do the best they can. Nash and Johnson treated the homeless they came across with respect, both saying that you have to treat them as people. Some would say if they are drug addicts, just arrest them. But it isn’t that easy.
“It is not illegal to be a drug addict,” he said. “You have to catch them with possession or using, or you can’t arrest them.”
“We are unique that we have an Angel program and victims advocate so the police department attempts to offer help with their addiction problems,” Bosse said. “We’ve built those resources into our responses and offer to help get them into a facility where they can get treated. But we are stretched with people we have and add more areas for them to check is straining them.”
Steve MCClain can be reached at email@example.com.