Faith coalition prepares to challenge city officials on housing, mental health, violence

A Lexington coalition of religious congregations is focusing its efforts on getting city officials to take specific actions to address affordable housing, mental health care and violent crime next month.

BUILD, which stands for Building a United Interfaith Lexington through Direct Action, is urging the city to dedicate $10 million a year to affordable housing, set up a pilot program for a “microtransit” public transportation service to help people with mental illnesses and send the police chief to visit cities that have implemented a violence prevention initiative that BUILD favors. BUILD outlined those issues as its top priorities for this year at a rally Tuesday night at Mary Queen of the Holy Rosary Catholic Church.

Tuesday night’s gathering was an effort to build enthusiasm as a lead-up to BUILD’s annual Nehemiah Action next month. At that event, the group meets on stage with elected officials, pressing them to answer their requests with a “yes.” The audience often includes more than 1,000 people.

“Our fight for justice is how we love our neighbor as we love ourselves,” Rev. Nathl Moore, of First African Baptist Church, told those in attendance at Tuesday night’s rally.

Affordable housing fund

This year, BUILD plans to ask Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council members to set aside 1% of the city’s revenue each year as a dedicated revenue stream for the affordable housing fund that BUILD spurred the city to create in 2014. That would generate more than $4 million a year for the program, which has created or preserved more than 3,000 affordable housing units so far.

More affordable units are needed, as BUILD says thousands of Lexington families pay more than half of their income for rent. Many, said Rev. Richard Gaines, of Consolidated Baptist Church, must “choose between rent or food, medicine or childcare.”

The council’s Budget, Finance and Economic Development Committee approved the 1% revenue measure last week, and the full council is expected to vote on it in June.

Councilman James Brown committed at last year’s Nehemiah Action to fight for a dedicated funding stream of at least $10 million a year for the affordable housing fund, and at this year’s action event, BUILD said it also plans to ask council members to “develop a new source of funding” that will boost the fund to that level when combined with the 1% of city revenue.

Microtransit pilot

BUILD said in materials presented Tuesday night that a lack of reliable, accessible transportation in Lexington makes it hard for people with mental illnesses to “achieve and maintain stability.”

“Transportation is the number one barrier to our clients,” said Amber Brown, of mental health and substance abuse treatment provider New Vista.

Brown said the bus system can be challenging for people with mental illnesses to navigate, and Kabby Akers, of Mary Queen of the Holy Rosary, said some people riding the city bus could face a ride of more than three hours to get to New Vista. Those who use the Wheels paratransit service for people with disabilities must remember to schedule in advance, which can be a problem for those with mental illnesses, Brown said.

To alleviate the problem, BUILD plans to ask Lextran to set up a pilot program for a microtransit service, which provides rides on demand, bridging the gap between public transportation and private rideshare services like Uber and Lyft, said Rev. Adam Jones, of Open Door Church.

“Think of it like a mini bus that comes when you want, where you want,” he said.

Last year, New Vista agreed to meet with the microtransit provider Via to talk about transportation barriers and possible solutions.

Now, BUILD will ask Councilman Chuck Ellinger to host a Via software demonstration and invite Lextran, the Metropolitan Planning Organization and other council members.

Group Violence Intervention

For years, BUILD has pushed Lexington city officials to respond to increasing violence by implementing the Group Violence Intervention program with the support of the National Network for Safe Communities.

This year, the group plans to ask Lexington Police Chief Lawrence Weathers to visit New Haven, Conn., and Miami-Dade County, Fla., to meet with law enforcement officials that have implemented Group Violence Intervention.

BUILD says more than 80 cities, including Cincinnati, Detroit, Chicago, Boston and New Orleans are using the program, which it says attempts “to intervene in the lives of at-risk individuals before they escalate to shooting, and offers the support they need to change their lifestyle.”

Tracy Holmes told those in attendance that she lost a great-nephew to a shooting last year, and a cousin was fatally shot last month in Lexington.

“Our children need and deserve a way out,” she said.

Mayor Linda Gorton has said in the past that she is concerned that Group Violence Intervention could hurt police or city government’s relationship with minority communities because of its “targeting aspect,” and she has said it has not worked for some cities. Gorton said in a letter to BUILD last year that the program has positive aspects “that are similar to other violence prevention and intervention programs that I fully support, and have ensured that our team prioritizes.”

Lexington has set a new homicide record in consecutive years, but the city has seen fewer fatal shootings so far this year — there have been two homicides in 2023.

BUILD’s Nehemiah Action is scheduled for 7 p.m. April 24 at Central Bank Center.

The diverse group, which includes more than 20 Fayette County congregations, said it set its priorities after small gatherings in the fall where people shared “personal stories about community problems.” BUILD said in a news release that the listening process “culminated with 400 people at our Community Problems Assembly who voted overwhelmingly to prioritize mental healthcare, affordable housing, and violent crime as the most pressing problems in our community.”

BUILD has been working on local problems related to poverty and injustice for 20 years and has tackled drug treatment, health care for the uninsured, suspension rates in schools, public transportation, code enforcement in mobile home parks and more.

“Each one of us has to be a messenger,” said Rev. Brian Chenowith, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Lexington. “It can be uncomfortable. Remember, we do this work for the people we love. ...Dr. King reminds us, ‘Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor. It has to be demanded by the oppressed.’”