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In Louisville, Development Puts Homeless Camps In Limbo

A small path winds through a shallow ditch and along the railroad tracks on the northern edge of Butchertown.

Heaps of trash and concrete walls plastered with graffiti dot the way.

Soon, it veers to the right beneath an old fence in to a labyrinth of tents and tarps — the ground littered with the leftovers of life past and present.

A man stands nearby drinking from a tall can of beer, his face shielded from the cool morning air by a dark hood and a long beard. His eyes are clear, his hands are dirty.

His name is Johnny. He doesn't want to give his last name.

"I've been here like six years," he said.

In that time, Johnny has seen people come and go from the camp. He's seen people do drugs here — more frequently in recent years. He's seen violence. He's seen death.

He's had his tent set ablaze and his possessions stolen.

Still, Johnny feels at home here at the place known widely as "Campbell Camp." For years, countless others like Johnny — with no other place to go — have lived here at this camp tucked in a section of the city dominated by industrial space. Railroads. Warehouses. Junkyards.

That'll soon change.

The land here will soon be developed into a $200 million soccer stadium project, complete with hotels, retail space and restaurants.

There will be no room for a homeless camp.

Johnny isn't surprised.

"When I first came here I was telling people this is inner city land — progress is going to come through and they're not going to let us stay," he said. "Nobody wanted to believe me."

This displacement is the byproduct of a developing city. As projects take form — like the soccer stadium or Waterfront Park or the Botanical Gardens along Frankfort Avenue — it puts a squeeze on the people who actually live here.

Natalie Harris, executive director of Louisville's Coalition for the Homeless, said there is a growing question among the city's homeless population.

"Where is it safe for me to go?" she asked.

Harris said her group's data shows the city's homeless population is dropping every year. Currently, there are about 6,300 homeless residents in Louisville, according to the most recent count.

Despite this, Harris said as more camps — like Campbell Camp — are destroyed, the burden on service providers can grow.

"There isn't enough shelter in the community," she said. "People have to make a choice."

Pushing homeless residents out of the urban core can push them further from the services they depend on — like the shelters, clinics and public transit, Harris said.

And shuttering camps can be problematic.

Earlier this year, city crews bulldozed a camp beneath an overpass near 14th Street, destroying the personal belongings of the people who lived there and enraging local homeless advocates.

In response, Louisville Metro Councilman Bill Hollander is proposing an ordinance that, if approved, would set in place strict protocol when it comes to the destruction of these camps.

The stipulations include requiring city agencies to give three weeks’ notice before destroying a camp and saving any personal items collected so the owners can retrieve them at a later date, according to the ordinance filed with council.

Hollander said what happened at 14th Street was heartbreaking.

"We're talking about everything a person owns," he said. "All of their life."

His proposal is being backed by city officials.

Eric Friedlander, the city's chief resilience officer, said the process of eradicating homeless camps needs to be improved.

"We should have done better," he said.

Back at the camp, Johnny seems proud of his small plot.

He's got a tent for sleeping, a tent for storage and a tent with a toilet.

"You've got to keep it simple, but clean," he said.

And he knows his days at the camp are numbered. He said police came through the camp earlier this month and said if residents start cleaning it up now they can stay through April.

If not, they'll be forced out in the coming days.

For Johnny, shelters aren't an option. They don't allow dogs, and he loves his dog Trigger.

So, he intends to find another place to camp.

He said it'd be nice if city officials would designate a place for people like him to stay. A place they can camp and have a say over who comes and goes.

Harris, with the Coalition for the Homeless, said that idea is novel, but problematic.

She said such a place would require rules and regulations and eventually be no different than a shelter.

And it's not the answer, she said.

Harris said it's not okay that society seems comfortable with allowing people to live outside, in tents.

Instead, she'd like to see more housing made available for people like Johnny.

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.

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