Sunday, April 21, 2002

Social service center facing vote this week

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        COVINGTON — Against a backdrop of last week'scity sweep of homeless camps and this week's crucial zoning change hearing, backers of the proposed New Life Learning social services center talk passionately about how the facility will operate. But fighting to win city and public approval for the project, they focus more on describing how the center won't operate.

        The New Life Learning Center, they say, will not be a homeless shelter, a soup kitchen, a halfway house, a rehab facility or a drop-in center, according to the millionaire Covington developer and the social agencies trying to build the center.

        “There is a great fear of the unknown,” said Dr. Mary Ann Barnes of St. Elizabeth Medical Center, who plans to volunteer and is one of the project's most ardent backers. “People don't understand” the center's goals, Dr. Barnes said.

        What's new about the proposed center, seven years in the planning, and first publicly proposed in 2000, is that it would centralize a number of agencies and services designed to help the homeless become self-sufficient.

        Planned now for the old Robke Chevrolet site in the 1300 block of Madison Av enue, the center has drawn fierce opposition from some city officials.

        “We've got to take a stand and not let Covington become the social service capital of the world,” said Commissioner Alex Ed mondson in January 2001, when the city commission voted to begin eminent-domain proceedings that kept the center from another site.

Helping themselves

        Backers say one common misconception is that the center will attract homeless and at-risk people looking for handouts, not help.

        Marty Butler, a lawyer and a brother of major center proponent Corporex Cos. chairman Bill Butler, said the project will not be a typical homeless shelter where people come in during the evening, stay all night and then leave in the morning.

        Up to 80 people will stay for six to 18 months, participating in mandatory classes and training, as well as drug and alcohol testing.

        “There will be zero-tolerance,” Marty Butler said. “They use, they are out. We'll refer them to another agency or treatment facility. We'll help them (with substance abuse), but not at the center. That's not our purpose.”

        In addition to dormitories, the center will feature a kitchen and dining area, pharmacy and medical clinic, classrooms for adults and toddlers, a main gathering room, a chapel and a laundry where residents can work and be paid while in the program.

        “This will help people get their lives together and allow them to contribute to society,” said Welcome House Executive Director Linda Young. “You hear about economic development all the time. This will help economic development because the center will be training and preparing people for the work force.”

Aim: Empower the poor

        The center is proposed by Bill Butler, a Covington native and one of Northern Kentucky's most successful real estate developers.

        It is designed to provide a variety of services — education, job and life skills training, housing, assistance with budgeting and a medical clinic — that will move homeless individuals and families to self-sufficiency.

        Mr. Butler has said he wants to develop the project to help those less fortunate while providing a service to the city where he grew up and has based the headquarters of his company.

        “I think there is a belief that if you don't provide services for the poor that the poor will go away,” said Marty Butler.

        “But that's not how it happens,” Marty Butler said. “You have to help the poor help themselves.”

        He pointed to Covington's sweep last week of homeless people living along the banks of the Ohio River.

        “We're trying to provide a facility that responds to that problem,” Marty Butler said. “As long as they want to participate, let's give them a place to stay so they don't have to live on the riverbank.”

Services are "swamped'

        “The services that are available in this area are just swamped,” said Mark Teegarden, who volunteers for Northern Kentucky agencies serving the homeless. “They do their very best, but they have limited funding. The homeless numbers have climbed to such a rate where it's impossible to give proper service to anyone.”

        Northern Kentucky has only 24 shelter beds for men, Mr. Teegarden said. Those are all at the Fairhaven Rescue Mission in Covington, which has 14 beds for men who stay overnight for up to seven nights, and another 10 beds for men who enter the center's long-term treatment program for drug and alcohol abuse.

        During last week's controversy over a riverbank sweep in which Covington public works employees cleared homeless camps with a backhoe and discarded personal possessions, center critics and supporters alike have said Greater Cincinnati governments and social service agencies need to take a comprehensive approach to dealing with the region's homeless.

        “The Life Learning Center will be a major first step toward helping the homeless situation here in the Covington area,” Mr. Teegarden said. It's not just for homeless people, but for the low-income people in the Covington area, too.”

        Several Northern Kentucky social service agencies are supporting the center and will be involved by running satellite operations in the facility.

        Those groups are:

        • Welcome House, a shelter for homeless and battered women and children.

        • The Mental Health Association of Northern Kentucky.

        • Transitions Inc.

        • Catholic Social Services.

        • NorthKey Community Care.

        • Northern Kentucky Housing and Homeless Coalition.

Zone change needed

               At 7 p.m. Tuesday, the Covington City Commission is scheduled to vote on a zone change that if approved would allow the center to be developed.

        Passage is far from certain. Some city commissioners and residents are opposed to the project, fearing it will attract more homeless to neighborhood.

        “We're hearing opposition from all areas of Covington,” said Covington resident Larry Barr, who organized daily pickets of the proposed Life Learning Center site last week.

        “Most people feel we have more than enough social service programs here in Covington.”

        Opponents say the center would lower property values, worsen an already bad sewer backup problem, and create a bad image for travelers on one of Covington's major arteries.

        Last week, Covington City Commission appeared to be split on whether to support the Life Learning Center. Mayor Butch Callery, who has fielded criticism from social service agencies and two of the four city commissioners over his handling of last week's river sweep, may hold the deciding vote.

        In January 2001, Mr. Callery voted, with three other commission members, to approve the eminent domain proceedings that forced the center's backers to look for a new site.

        Bill Butler had at first tried to develop the center on land he owned at Pike and Washington streets. But opposition from the city and some neighboring businesses killed the project at that location. The city filed eminent domain condemnation on the site, forcing Mr. Butler to look elsewhere and eventually settle on the Robke property.

        Any vote on the zone change for the new site for the center will likely not come until after Tuesday, Mr. Callery said.

        “Normally, on a public hearing like this where there's a lot of input, the commission needs time to sift through all the information,” the mayor said. “In the past, we've done that consistently when there's been a big vote taken. We like to step back and take some time to think about the issue.”

        Commissioners J.T. Spence and Craig Bohman have said they're leaning toward supporting the center, if their questions are answered at Tuesday's hearing. Commissioner Alex Edmondson has said he's opposed to the Life Learning Center, largely because he thinks there's a better use for the site.

        “It should not be in a major commercial district on one of the city's main arteries,” Mr. Edmondson said. “There's a much better use for that property, either something commercial or infill residential housing.”

        A study released in February by the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless estimated that nearly 25,000 people were counted as homeless at some point in 2000-01. Those numbers — for the Tristate — include people living in shelters, on the streets and doubled up with family and friends.

        The study estimated that in Greater Cincinnati, more than 6,000 people might find themselves homeless in a month — 1,400 in shelters and transitional housing, 330 on the streets and 4,425 doubled up with family and friends.

        According to 2000 Census data, Covington reported about 3,000 people homeless. Census homeless counts have been disputed on both city and federal levels because of the difficulty of counting people in shelters and living out of doors.

        The services provided for the homeless at the center will include:

        • Education, including GED classes and programs provided by the Northern Kentucky Community & Technical College being developed in Boone County.

        • Literacy training.

        • Job training and placement.

        • Health services, including health education and hygiene skills.

        • Basic life skills training, such as how to budget money, parenting classes, how to prepare for a job interview and how to keep a job.

        • Family counseling.

        • Transitional housing.

        • A day room where the homeless could shower, receive mail and use the phone to look for a job or set up job interviews.

        • Montessori child care.

        Most of the $3 million to buy and develop the property, as well as the annual budget of $2 million to $3 million a year, will come from Mr. Butler and money he raises from area corporations.

        “Funding won't be a problem,” Marty Butler said. “Companies are lining up to help because they know there is a need for something like this in the community.”

        A $900,000 federal grant will be used to develop a transitional 12-unit apartment building adjacent to the center. And eventually Bill Butler may develop a small office building and more residential units nearby.

        Enquirer reporter Cindy Schroeder contributed.

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