What’s the point of Metro Council’s proposed camping ordinance?
Debate continues over a Metro Council proposal that could make it easier to clear homeless encampments and confiscate people’s belongings.
WFPL’s Yasmine Jumaa spoke with Natalie Harris, executive director of the Louisville Coalition for the Homeless, about the proposal, which has not yet made it through to the full council. Harris said the suggested changes to the ordinance fail to address residents’ concerns, which are about how existing law is implemented.
“There are concerns about the backlog of camps that have been assessed already and need to be cleared. There are concerns about which sites get addressed first,” Harris said. “All of those are things that will take city staff deciding how they're going to implement the ordinance.”
Instead of rewriting laws in ways that create more barriers for unsheltered residents, Harris said city officials should fine-tune how they’re enforcing ordinances and focus on expanding shelter options.
Metro Council’s Parks and Sustainability Committee is expected to continue discussing the measure at its meeting Thursday afternoon.
Here are some highlights from the conversation with Harris, which have been edited for length and clarity.
89.3 WFPL News Louisville · What’s the point of Metro Council’s proposed camping ordinance?
The measure has significantly evolved since its introduction in September. Please walk me through what it looks like today.
The two things that were of greatest concern for us were one making sure that there's some type of notice, regardless of a clearing, no matter how quickly that clearing happens, so that people can protect their valuable items. And the second is to not unnecessarily fine people, because there is no place else for them to go. They are sleeping outdoors.
We feel like both of those things were mostly addressed at the last Parks Committee, which is the committee that is looking at this proposed ordinance.
One of the amendments strikes the word “homeless” from the ordinance. What’s the purpose of this, especially with everything else in the measure pointing to people living on the streets?
I think that is one of the biggest concerns about this change in the ordinance... The ordinance was originally written specifically to protect people's belongings. And I understand in this role that, you know, homeless people do not have a right to take over other people's property. But they have very few options when the shelters are full, and there is not enough housing in the community.
This ordinance was created [in 2018] so that when people did have to be moved, they would just get notice because of instances that have happened in the city in the past. People have lost family members' ashes, their IDs, work uniforms, things that are really important to people, including medication, because they did not know that their things were going to be taken.
So the whole purpose of that part of the law here in the city was switched and is now really about when and how people can be moved within the city if they are in a public place.
Could the measure add any extra hurdles for people? If so, what would they be?
Our biggest concern was with the citations, because people do change their lives, people do have the opportunity to start over. And if you have tons of citations on your record, and you're trying to find a new job, they do a background check on you and see that, that can keep you from getting a job.
If you have tons of citations, and especially unpaid fines, and are trying to move into an apartment…that can be something that can keep you from getting into a rental apartment. So these are the things that are going to change your life.
If we put any barriers in people's way...that can be enough to get a person who was in the right direction, off the path.
How would the proposal, in its latest form, affect residents who are unsheltered?
The biggest consequence now is… [the ordinance] does not say what “blocking the sidewalk” is. So, in other cities that is clearly stated as covering more than half of the sidewalk or you know, a certain number of inches. So, it could be used now to take people's things without notice.
Another one of the things that I think the ordinance does not really address is where those would be kept and how they would be kept and the cost of collecting and keeping people's things.
And you asked specifically about how this would affect homeless people. But I do also feel like this could be used to trample on people's civil liberties. We have had in the past situations where people have taken over parks to protest, and they have lots of things in those parks. And so this ordinance could allow those things also to be taken.
What can residents and the city do to help people living on the streets avoid displacement, citations and fines?
The biggest thing that we can do is just try to make sure that people are safe wherever they are. So you know, making as much shelter available is our best case, you know, to be able to get people off the streets. Often people worry about their safety because people are sleeping outdoors. But I can assure you that people who are sleeping outdoors are the most unsafe. You know, there's a lot of risk, both in the weather in violence outside.
The other things we can do is just to make sure that people understand what the law is, and be really clear about where people can't be so that they don't set up a camp in the first place.
We are strongly advocating that the city add more low barrier, non-congregate shelters that are 24 hours [like St. Vincent DePaul] so that people are not moving from place to place, which has been our system in the past.