LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — A group of Kentucky lawmakers wants to crack down on people sleeping in public and other places, charging them with criminal offenses if they refuse to leave.
The street camping ban is just one part of a wide-ranging proposal called the Safer Kentucky Act that Republican legislators from Louisville unveiled in late September. They intend to file a bill when the General Assembly starts meeting in January.
An early framework of the measure lays out goals that include making it illegal to camp on public streets, sidewalks or other public areas as well as private property. Anyone doing so would have to leave or be “physically relocated” by police and face misdemeanor charges that escalate with each incident.
The plan also would shield property owners from criminal offenses “for any actions taken to defend themselves from the aggressive actions” when a camp is being cleared. Those camping could be charged with assault for “any such aggression.”
Supporters say their approach is a public safety effort that pushes back against panhandling and crimes associated with street camps in Louisville and elsewhere. And they argue it doesn’t foreclose other steps lawmakers can take to aid organizations that help the homeless.
Rep. John Hodgson, R-Fisherville, who represents part of eastern Jefferson County, told WDRB News that constituents approached him with safety concerns about people camping near their homes and businesses.
He said there’s nothing compassionate about letting people remain on the street indefinitely.
“They need treatment. They need to be in rehab facilities,” he said. “And just saying, ‘We’re going to let you stay on the street’ and hoping they’re going to get better is fantasy. They’re going to spiral downward until they eventually die and they’re going to impact a lot of other people’s lives negatively along the way.”
Hodgson acknowledged that the proposal might overlap with Kentucky’s existing criminal trespassing laws, but “we’re just trying to make this crystal clear for the public, as well as for those that are enforcing it.”
But some advocates for the homeless claim the Kentucky plan and similar measures being adopted in other states are heavy handed and don’t address larger problems such as a lack of affordable housing and why people are living outside in the first place.
“We want housing, not handcuffs for people,” said Adrienne Bush, executive director of the Homeless and Housing Coalition of Kentucky.
Bush, whose organization supports state and federal policies that expand access to housing and aim to end homelessness, noted in an interview that the public hasn’t yet seen a draft of the legislation. But, based on media reports, she said she’s concerned about the potential criminal penalties for people who don’t vacate a street camp.
“This type of legislation does seem to be proposed as a response to a rise in unsheltered homelessness, which is very real,” Bush said. “But, to us, it doesn’t fundamentally solve the problem.”
Those “unsheltered” are one of the hardest-to-reach segments of Louisville’s homeless population: people who mostly live outdoors instead of staying with friends or family or using emergency or short-term transitional housing.
And their ranks are growing, according to data from the Louisville-based Coalition for the Homeless. Its annual winter count, a snapshot taken each January, found 581 such people in early 2023, up from 243 during the same census the prior year — a 139% increase.
The first draft of the GOP proposal is expected to be introduced at the Dec. 15 meeting of the legislature’s interim judiciary committee.
During an interview earlier this month, Hodgson said the initial version hasn’t changed, except that backers plan to revise a section allowing local governments to have indoor or outdoor areas set aside for camping to ensure those sites aren’t zoned for residential use or near schools.
He said the legislation isn’t an attempt to criminalize homelessness.
“The ultimate goal of the Safer Kentucky Act is to create safer streets, to create an environment where people are not being economically damaged by crime,” he said. “They’re not having fear walking down the street. They’re willing to go out with their children at night and go to a restaurant and not worry about being accosted.”
‘Not the right solution’
To be sure, the GOP proposal identifies a problem, said state Rep. Lisa Willner, D-Louisville, “but it’s not the right solution.”
“If we’re talking about people with severe mental illness who may be part of the unhoused population, then we’re talking about kind of a revolving door situation where we have people who are rotating from hospitalization to incarceration to houselessness,” she said. “And that just becomes a cyclical problem where the root causes are never being addressed.”
Willner, who served on the state’s Severe Mental Illness Task Force, said not enough public policy has addressed the causes of homelessness. She noted, for instance, a bipartisan bill she sponsored this year to prevent utility shutoffs during extreme weather — when heating and cooling bills can soar — didn’t advance in the legislature.
The Louisville homeless coalition has had “really good conversations” with the proposed legislation’s sponsors that have included concerns and possible unintended consequences, said George Eklund, the organization’s education and advocacy director.
Eklund echoed other concerns about the proposal’s criminal charges creating another barrier to homeless people accessing help and ultimately getting into permanent housing. He also wonders how police would act.
“In Louisville, I would be really curious to see how it is going to be enforced,” he said.
The Louisville Metro Police Department declined an interview request for this story.
“Should the proposal pass and become law, please circle back and revisit the subject with us,” spokeswoman Angela Ingram said in an email. “Then we may be able to provide greater insight and an interview.”
The Louisville Metro Department of Corrections did not answer emailed questions asking whether its leaders believe the Safer Kentucky Act plan could worsen already documented issues with inmates with mental health concerns and contribute to overcrowding. The department deferred to Mayor Craig Greenberg’s office.
Kevin Trager, a Greenberg spokesman, did not answer emailed questions about how the proposal, if enacted, would affect police or the city’s jail. Instead, he provided a written statement that said that chronic homelessness and large encampments “create health and safety problems for those who are homeless, as well as neighbors, local business owners and patrons, students, pedestrians and more.”
Trager said the Greenberg administration is working to help the city’s homeless, including through the planned Community Care Campus in Old Louisville that would provide access to social services and help with housing needs.
“We are focused on making our streets, sidewalks, parks and other public spaces safe and healthy for everyone,” Trager said. “Criminal activity will not be tolerated, regardless of one’s housing status.”
After agreeing to comment initially for this story, the Kentucky Association of Jailers did not respond to follow-up requests.
To Pharra Burleson, who works to connect Louisville’s homeless with support services and other resources, a better solution is more outreach to those living on the streets.
“Scare tactics isn’t exactly the way to get people to trust you to do something different,” she said. “Because the main goal — the objective — is to get them to try something new.”
Burleson said she had been homeless for years until getting sober in summer 2021 after meeting Sharon Allgeier, program manager of of Goodwill’s “Another Way” initiative. It focuses on offering people who panhandle a chance to make $50 for five hours’ work.
But the program also helps to build relationships with the homeless. In her case, Burleson said the day she met Allgeier was a chance to change her life at a time when she was “done with life — exasperated from the inside out.”
Allgeier now does the same outreach that she said helped get her off the streets.
“There’s not enough of us to go round,” she said. “You know, we only have so many of us. There needs to be more of us. If there was more of us, man, we could help.”
Rep. Jared Bauman, R-Louisville, the main sponsor of the broader crime proposal, said its supporters endorse the work that advocates for the homeless are doing.
“We want them to be successful,” he said. “You’re going to see, potentially, another bill come out in the next session based on some of the meetings that we’ve had with groups like the homeless coalition in Louisville.”
But Bush, director of the statewide advocacy group, said the reality now is that only one proposal has been made public — the one that could penalize people who sleep on the streets.
“What if they came up with another bill?” she said. “The proof would be in the pudding at that point.”
Other states enact similar laws
The Kentucky proposal comes as other state legislatures have passed bills into law that levy criminal charges for homeless people who sleep outside.
In Missouri, for instance, a new law makes it a misdemeanor to camp on state-owned land unless someone refuses to “move to any offered services or shelter.” Texas lawmakers approved a similar bill in 2021.
Tennessee lawmakers passed a bill into law in July 2022 that makes camping on public property a felony offense. The legislation also created misdemeanor penalties for people who camp near state or interstate highways or overpasses.
As a result, it’s been harder to reach out to those in need of help, said Katelyn McGuire, executive director of the Tennessee Valley Coalition for the Homeless, which works in 12 eastern counties outside Knoxville.
“Folks are a lot more distrusting. They’re a lot more fearful, right?” she said. “Because if they were to be caught camping on public property, that could possibly end up in some sort of legal action, or even just displacement in general.”
McGuire said such laws make it easier for homeless people to be branded as criminals and dehumanized.
“It really kind of scares us away from the fact that they are our neighbors. They are human beings,” she said. “They are folks that still deserve compassion and dignity and they deserve to be treated just as you would treat anyone else in your community.”
Copyright 2023 WDRB Media. All Rights Reserved.