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Penalties for camping in public become law in Louisville, despite opposition

041922_HOMELESSNESS_by J. Tyler Franklin_1
J. Tyler Franklin
/
LPM
“The camping ordinance,” as it's known, amends a 2018 law meant to protect people experiencing homelessness from having their tents and belongings discarded without notice.

A controversial amendment to Louisville’s laws around camping in public spaces took effect earlier this month, despite calls to veto the legislation by advocates for the city's unsheltered residents.

Colloquially called “the camping ordinance,” it amends a 2018 law meant to protect people experiencing homelessness from having their tents and belongings discarded without notice. The amendment makes it illegal for people to sleep in public spaces like parks, including those who live in a vehicle. Anyone who violates the new rules could face a nominal fine and receive a civil citation.

Former Mayor Greg Fischer, who left office at the start of the new year, and current Mayor Craig Greenberg both chose not to sign or veto the legislation, allowing it to pass into law on Jan. 3.

Advocates for houseless residents — including Shameka Parrish-Wright, a former mayoral candidate who has said she experienced homelessness — showed up to council meetings last year to oppose the changes. Metro Council approved the ordinance last month at its final meeting of 2022, in a 16-8 vote.

“Fining people who are extremely poor is cruel, it’s not right and it's ineffective,” Parrish-Wright said. “This won’t help our houseless population. This won’t clear [the encampments] out. It’s just moving it and scattering them around.”

The number of people experiencing homelessness in Louisville increased 41% from 2018 to 2021, according to an analysis by the Coalition for the Homeless published last year.

Supporters of the camping ordinance said legislation would help police officers and city officials better enforce rules around camping or living in public parks.

The ordinance was sponsored by former Metro Council Members Nicole George and David James, both of whom took senior leadership positions in the Greenberg administration this month. George now oversees the city’s response to homelessness as the deputy mayor of public health and services.

Last November, James, who represented Old Louisville, said some of his constituents complained about safety concerns.

“I also have a couple of parks that have that issue where people are living in their vehicle, carrying out their drug usage and defecating on the parking lot and sidewalk…leaving their syringes,” James said. “The neighbors get very concerned about it, because their kids can't go over to the park to play because of it.”

More than 30 Louisville-area nonprofits, including St. Vincent de Paul, Goodwill Industries of Kentucky and The Center for Women and Families wrote an open letter to Metro Council on Dec. 15, asking council members to put the ordinance on hold.

Shortly after it was approved, the ACLU of Kentucky and the Coalition for the Homeless circulated a petition calling on Mayor Greg Fischer to veto the legislation. According to the Coalition, the petition garnered more than 1,400 signatures.

In an interview with LPM on Dec. 22, Fischer said he was consulting with Greenberg, who was preparing to take office on Jan. 2, about whether to veto the legislation or not.

“The Greenberg administration is going to have to live with whatever that [legislation] is like,” Fischer said. “What I do know is that our homeless population has rights…People have the right to walk down a sidewalk unimpeded. People with private property have rights where people can’t come on to their property as well. This is kind of the challenge.”

Kevin Trager, a spokesperson for Greenberg, said Fischer neither vetoed nor signed the camping ordinance before leaving office at the beginning of the year. Under local law, if a mayor does not sign or veto a piece of legislation, it automatically becomes law following the next Metro Council meeting.

Greenberg had one day between his inauguration on Jan. 2 and Metro Council’s first meeting of the year on Jan. 3 to take action on the camping ordinance. Greenberg also chose not to take action on the legislation, allowing it to pass into law.

He said last week he didn’t feel it was appropriate to take action on legislation approved before his term began.

“There were a few pieces of legislation that were passed by Metro Council before I became mayor, so those all became law without my signature,” he said.

Greenberg added his administration would be announcing its strategy to prevent homelessness and provide services to unsheltered residents in the coming weeks.

Parrish-Wright said she was “disappointed” to hear the camping ordinance had become law. She said Fischer and Greenberg did act on the legislation — through inaction.

“Passing the buck and not doing anything about it, I think that inaction showed they wanted to stay good on all sides,” she said. “And there’s no way to do that.”

Catherine McGeeney, a spokesperson for the Coalition for the Homeless, said members rallied in opposition to the ordinance last September because people camping in a public park could have been fined up to $1,000.

“The community spoke up, both through individual people and through organizations,” McGeeney said. “Metro Council listened to those voices and, as a result, removed the worst of the punitive measures from the final copy of the ordinance that passed.”

In the final version of the ordinance, the potential fine was decreased to less than $5 per offense. Fines can still start to stack up if a person refuses to leave the park or public space.

While the enactment of the camping ordinance is a loss for the activists and community groups who opposed it, the Coalition for the Homeless is focusing on moving forward, McGeeney said. The group plans to release a list of recommendations for the Greenberg administration to reduce the number of people in Louisville living without shelter and increase their access to housing and social services.

“We believe that there is a will both on the part of Louisvillians and the leadership here to invest the money that’s needed to not just solve the problem of homelessness for people who aren’t unhoused, to not just make those of us who have homes comfortable, but to also actually put people into shelter with the goal of ultimately having enough affordable housing,” McGeeney said.

Greenberg is expected to announce his plans for tackling Louisville’s most pressing issues, including public safety and affordable housing, at his first State of the City address next month.

Roberto Roldan is the City Politics and Government Reporter for WFPL. Email Roberto at rroldan@lpm.org.