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Metro Council proposal could add more hurdles for residents who are unsheltered

J. Tyler Franklin

A Louisville Metro Council committee is expected to vote Thursday on a proposal that would make it harder for people who are unsheltered to inhabit public spaces. But social justice advocates and some officials say the measure could increase barriers facing already-vulnerable residents.

The proposal aims to make changes to an existing ordinance that, in 2018, implemented certain protections to residents who are houseless. That included the requirement for city officials to give people notice 21 days before clearing encampments. 

But those protections were limited and not intended to end camp clearings. Even with them in place, city officials still displaced people living in encampments and disposed of their belongings

The current proposal  would ban camping on city property for more than 12 hours without a permit. It would also add a new section to the existing ordinance prohibiting people from placing their belongings in public walkways. 

“Our community has a right and a responsibility to care for these folks. And this is, this is the exact opposite of that. That is criminalizing and creating structural systemic violence and barriers towards people who are already marginalized,” Feed Louisville Founder Donny Greene told WFPL News in September, when the measure was introduced.

District 21 Council Member Nicole George, a Democrat, is one of three city lawmakers pushing for the changes. She said the goal is to ensure people don’t impede the public right of way and to reinforce restrictions around camping in public parks. She also wants to make it easier for city agencies like the Louisville Metro Police Department and the Office of Resilience and Community Services to shut down encampments before people settle in. 

During a special meeting Monday, she said she is sponsoring the ordinance changes because of “challenges” facing her constituents.

“What we're not measuring the cost of is our inability to effectively establish an expectation within our community related with how we regulate and uphold a standard around public rights of way,” George said. “That means the neighbor can't access the bus stop. The neighbor that can't let their children play in their front yard or garden in their backyard. The person who can't walk their dog. These all come with an impact and a cost.”

While the proposed changes would remove any mention of residents experiencing homelessness from the existing ordinance, some say they would still disproportionately affect people living on the streets.

When the measure was first introduced,  Lily Milwit, an attorney practicing in the Washington D.C. and Baltimore areas, emailed council members on behalf of the National Homelessness Law Center. She outlined the group’s opposition to the proposal.

“Not only will it not solve homelessness in the short- or long-term, but it will also cost Louisville more money, jeopardize the health and safety of people experiencing homelessness, exacerbate poverty and homelessness, and leave Louisville vulnerable to potential legal challenges,” Milwit wrote. 

Democratic Council Member Bill Hollander of District 9 sponsored the 2018 ordinance that introduced the 21-day notice rule. He recently raised concerns that the proposed changes would make it easier to fine unsheltered residents and confiscate their valuables.

“There should be a requirement of at least some notice and warning before people's personal belongings are confiscated,” Hollander said. “There should be stronger language, making it clear that this only applies where [walkway] access is really blocked.”

LMPD Lt. Caleb Stewart confirmed to council members Monday that there are already enforceable state laws about impeding public walkways, including sidewalks. He said law enforcement officers can ticket people for infractions.

“I know some of the barriers we've had, especially if it goes to Code Enforcement, all we could potentially do is issue somebody a citation. We can't make we couldn't make them move or move anything,” Stewart said. “For LMPD, to move someone against their will, from a location, we essentially in almost all cases have to have probable cause to take them to jail. Trespassing is one of those things.”

The ordinance tasks the city’s Code Enforcement Board with overseeing violations, which would be considered civil offenses punishable by fines ranging from $50-$200. 

District 8 Council Member Cassie Chambers Armstrong, a Democrat, highlighted some possible risks of enforcing fines.  

“We all understand that if somebody is charged with a fine, and they don't have the ability to pay it, that can result in people going back to court. And then that can result in a civil contempt order. And that can result in somebody being incarcerated. And that can result in a whole host of spiraling and snowballing issues,” Chambers Armstrong said. 

Anyone in violation of the ordinance would receive additional fines for each day the infraction persists. 

Local advocates for residents experiencing homelessness protested the proposal when it was introduced about two months ago. Natalie Harris, executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless, spoke at a September demonstration. 

“Fining people who are experiencing homelessness is cruel and ineffective,” Harris said “People need housing, not fines. The criminalization of homelessness moves Louisville in the wrong direction.”

The measure has evolved since its introduction. It initially prohibited storing or placing personal property on any street, alley, sidewalk or public way, regardless of whether the objects impeded access to the public right of way. But Hollander said focusing the restriction to personal items only in the public walkways isn’t enough. 

“We actually have some ordinances now that say, for example, you can't take a newspaper box away from downtown unless it substantially impedes the flow of pedestrian traffic,” he said. “Unless we can get this fixed, we're going to have more protection for newspaper boxes than we're going to have for, potentially, a homeless person's belongings, and that makes no sense to me.”

On Thursday, Metro Council’s Parks and Sustainability Committee is expected to finalize changes to the measure and decide whether to advance the proposal to the full body for final consideration.

Jacob Munoz contributed reporting.