Central Kentucky tenant advocates, homeless shelters say they’re in the middle of an eviction, housing crisis
Advocates for both tenants and the homeless community in Madison County say they’re in the middle of a housing and eviction crisis.
Groups like the Madison County Tenants Union, the NAACP and local shelters have organized multiple marches in Berea and Richmond since last December. They say it’s to call attention to both the local homeless community and a rising number of evictions in the county.
Patrick Messer is the pastor at Richmond’s First Christian Church and was out supporting a Martin Luther King Day march in downtown Richmond. He says his church gets calls every day from people facing housing issues.
“We have people working in the office just to field these calls that are happening all the time,” Messer said. “They're either trying to get a deposit to get into a place, or they've had a housing voucher, but there's no one to take them.”
Across the street from First Christian is the nonprofit Madison Home, which works with local churches to help solve these issues. The nonprofit helps those in need find housing arrangements, employment and essentials like food and clothing.
Melissa Slone is Madison Home’s assistant director and works directly with the unhoused. She says she has seen a definite uptick in people asking for Madison Home’s services the past year.
“We are seeing anywhere from 18 to 24 people a night being housed here,” Slone said. “We are seeing them from all walks of life. It’s not just one type of population.”
One of those people is Robert Ellison, who was evicted shortly after moving in with family in Richmond after a mental health crisis back home in New York City. He’s been helping prepare meals for other unhoused people at Madison Home while staying there himself.
“I didn't have no sense of direction at all,” Ellison said. “I've never been a person like that, I’ve always been, you know, a go-to person, always worked, always did a good thing, always did the right things. And unfortunate circumstances led to being homeless.”
Slone says she began to see that increase beginning in January of 2023, when a homeless encampment off Exit 90A was cleaned out and residents were asked to relocate. Many of those living there were referred to Madison Home.
“When that was cleared off, I thought it was between 50 and 60 people here that day, just to get resources, to get supplies that they have lost,” Slone said. “And this isn't in the mix of our regular people. This is literally all new people that I have never seen before that are here to get help from that.”
667 evictions have been filed in Madison County Circuit Court in 2023. Data from the Legal Services Corporation’s Eviction Tracker shows that number is a yearly high dating back to 2016.
Margaret Sites, a staff attorney with Applered Legal Aid who specializes in housing cases and eviction defense, has tracked each of last year’s eviction filings through weekly court dockets.
She says increasing rent prices are the biggest issue. But people are also losing eligibility for state assistance, especially after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“A lot of people who are chronically rent burdened are coming up against the limit of aid that they have been able to get,” Sites said. “And so people are starting to run out of options for rental assistance.”
Sites says it’s also harder for tenants to stay protected. Madison County is one of many counties across Kentucky that hasn’t codified the Uniform Residential Landlord Tenant Act as law.
“All of the things that you think of as being inherent to the landlord-tenant relationship, like the landlord has to provide housing of a certain quality, you can withhold rent in order to get repairs done, none of that is actually inherent in the landlord-tenant relationship in Madison County, because we don't have that law,” Sites said.
Sites also says out-of-state, corporate landlords purchasing more properties in Richmond and Berea could be an underlying cause.
“We haven't really been seeing that dynamic in Madison County before,” Sites said. “There are some bigger landlords in Madison County, but they tend to be local. They were families that just owned a lot of properties.”
They’re also concerned about Senate Bill 5, also known as the Safer Kentucky Act, which includes a provision to ban street camping and would make damaging a rental property in excess of $500 a felony. Advocates like Melissa Slone say the provisions are too harsh.
“My main question with that is how are you going to charge people with committing a crime for pitching up a tent when you don't give them any other option? They have nowhere else to go.”
Meanwhile, advocates like Slone are asking for more funding and resources towards homeless shelters in Madison County.
Slone says the city of Richmond has been a great help supporting the nonprofit, but there needs to be a permanent, county-wide solution.
“We need something more,” Slone said. “We need a permanent shelter in this community because what we have to understand is homelessness is not going to go away, no matter what you do.”
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