By Ben Johnson
To most of us, the homeless are an invisible population – a population out of sight and mind. On the rare occasions that we do see the dire face of homelessness, we write it off as a harsh reality of the world we live in and move on with our lives.
Ginny Ramsey is a different person; she has dedicated the past 20 years of her life to helping those most vulnerable in our society.
In 1999, she started the Catholic Action Center, an organization designed to fill in the gaps between government service for those in poverty or homeless.
To find the gaps in service, Ramsey held town hall meetings with the homeless to learn what they needed.
“They told us they needed restrooms because they were being arrested for public indecency,” Ramsey said. “They needed a place to get three meals a day, they needed a place to take a shower, they needed a place to wash their clothes, and they needed a place to have a telephone and an address so they could get a job.”
With this information, Ramsey helped create the Community Inn shelter, which shelters and feeds over a hundred people a night; Gods Garments, which provides clothing, household goods, and furniture for families in need; and other emergency housing for vulnerable families. All of this is done under the umbrella of the Catholic Action Center, which itself also provides meals, showers, mail service, and other social services.
Since its inception, the Catholic Action Center – which doesn’t receive any government funding – has served over 4.8 million meals, laundered over 312,000 loads of clothes, and gave those in need over 485,000 nights of shelter.
“We are taking in the people that others won’t take in,” Ramsey said. “They are the mentally ill, the addicted, and the disabled. Around 75 percent of the people we serve fall into these categories.”
Ramsey’s journey of aiding the homeless began in 1995 when former Mayor Pam Miller tasked her with bringing together the communities of faith in Lexington to help those in need under Bill Clinton’s Welfare to Work program. The idea was to utilize community involvement in the plan.
Ramsey, who had been a tax accountant for 29 years but knew the community well from her time doing social justice work, said she was amazed to see the faith based communities unite so quickly to help the impoverished.
“We had 238 [faith-based] communities out of 419 that joined the effort,” Ramsey said. “And they set aside their theologies and their prejudices against each other; whether it was Baptist against Catholic or the African American churches against the big white churches. All that went away because people wanted to work for the betterment of the Lexington. It was eye-opening.”
Ramsey’s first big epiphany came during the Feed the Hungry program that was initially part of the Welfare to Work initiative. Ramsey said feeding those in need was “fulfilling” and she saw the benefit so directly that it rekindled a fire of justice in her.
Ramsey describes herself as a child of the sixties who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis. She also stated that the Catholic Action Center is inspired by Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker Movement and Day’s fight on behalf of the homeless in New York City in the 1930s. Ramsey learned from Day that “if everyone does their piece, there doesn’t have to be suffering.”
Ramsey said she was living like everyone else that didn’t think much about issues of hardship until she saw the people who suffer from poverty and homelessness.
“Until you see the face of poverty and understand the humanity behind it, why are you going to care?” Ramsey said.
After seeing the faces up close, Ramsey started seeing the people on the streets and noticing all the gaps in services to the poor.
When asked if she thinks the government is on the right path to end homelessness in ten years, Mayor Jim Gray’s timetable, she quipped that it must have been said during the campaign.
Ramsey, however, stated that the city’s Housing First program that would see 20 people on the streets moved into permanent housing is a significant step in the right direction. She pointed out that the Catholic Action Center placed 71 chronically homeless people in houses and 60 of them have been homed for over five years.
Housing First projects move the homeless into immediate independent housing rather than moving them through different levels of housing as is typically done. The homeless moved into their new homes are assigned a social worker to help the transition along.
When asked if Housing First is the best strategy to ending homelessness, she answered “absolutely.”
“It’s so successful because you get homeless in a place where they can live, and then they can work on the barriers of reentry into the system and society,” Ramsey said.
Ramsey also said that the city’s recent implementation of a mental health court was another important step in alleviating homelessness.
Mental illness is the number one thing driving people to homelessness, Ramsey noted. She said it disconnects them from their families so they end up sick with no place to go because they burned all their bridges.
But Ramsey knows the government is only doing so much.
“You got a big government that moves slowly, so we discovered back then that we need to fill in the gaps of government services for the homeless.”
To do this, Ramsey and the Catholic Action Center must come up with clever ways to raise awareness and draw in volunteers and donations.
For the Catholic Action Center’s ten-year-anniversary, they put on a play seen live by 36,000 people called “Please Don’t Call Me Homeless, I Don’t Call You Homed.”
Ramsey said that 60,000 of Lexington residents live at or below the poverty line.
Ramsey pleads that if we don’t face this problem and accept our similarities as human beings demanding dignity, then we will not be able to make change and give these people the justice they deserve.
“It’s true that a community is judged on how they treat the least of its people,” Ramsey said. “We can not treat people differently because of their address, their bank account, or their clothing; they are no different from you or me or the mayor or the president or any of the people we put on pedestals.”
As for Ramsey’s role, it will continue regardless of increased government help or a shift in people’s perspectives on homelessness and poverty.
“There has to be a voice for the voiceless, and our friends on the street are the most voiceless you are going to find,” Ramsey said.