Louisville homeless advocates say encampment clearings, at Derby time or anytime, cause harm
In Louisville, city workers clear homeless encampments year-round. But the practice gets particular attention ahead of the Kentucky Derby.
People from across the world flock to Louisville in May to witness the city’s signature event, the Kentucky Derby.
Occasions like this can create additional uncertainty for vulnerable, unhoused residents, who may be displaced. Some see it as Louisville’s way to clean up when eyes are on the city. Last month, right before the Yum! Center hosted March Madness games, workers cleared encampments behind the arena.
Cristina Holsom, who’s with Louisville advocacy organization VOCAL-KY, was unhoused on the streets of Louisville for nine years. She now lives in her own apartment, but said she can’t forget watching a bulldozer clear her encampment, while she was still inside her tent.
“It was so traumatic, that I couldn’t find my zipper on my tent to let me out because I thought the bulldozers were there and it was gonna bulldoze me in. I lost my kids’ birth announcement blankets during the clearing. How can the city decide for us what’s important and what’s not?” Holsom said.
She said one thing that could have helped her was temporary housing and access to services while she found a new place.
“I needed something transitional. In fact, a motel would have been perfect. If the city can’t provide people a place to go or resources, they shouldn’t try to move us,” she said.
The resources Holsom is talking about includes medical care, applying for identity documents and employment resources. In Louisville, nonprofits do the bulk of the work in connecting unhoused people to services.
Jeff Gill of Hip Hop Cares, a nonprofit that helps connect residents in encampments to services, said providers have to do a lot of heavy lifting in very little time ahead of major events.
“You can't be moving people, because it makes it nearly impossible for these caseworkers to catch up with folks if they don't know where they're at,” he says.
Gill says the city’s approach is less about giving people choices or options, and more about maintaining a facade.
“Their mission is to just give the visual impression that homelessness doesn't exist, but the cost of that is people having to essentially hide. And that’s not okay, because where are they going to hide?” Gill said.
Holsom pointed out clearings aren’t just done before events.
“It’s not just Derby when they do this stuff, anytime a President comes in, an official comes in. I just wish they’d asked us, ‘Are you doing OK? Do you want some food or water?’ Just show some care,” she said.
Sometimes encampment residents get three weeks’ notice before clearing crews arrive. But other times, when the city conducts a risk assessment and deems there’s a great risk to health or safety, they get a warning just 24 hours in advance.
A 2018 ordinance quires the city to issue a 21-day notice ahead of a certain encampment clearings to people living in the camp and service providers. Providers help connect residents to a temporary hotel stay and health care, transitional housing and other services.
Between July 2021 and June 2022, Louisville Metro carried out five encampment clearings. But that number doesn’t include clearings ordered by the state or those taking place on private property. From July 2022 until this February, the number of city-initiated camp clearings rose to 28.
But emergency clearings in 24 hours time can make it harder for providers to get there on time. Often, Gill said, unhoused residents have already had to move before he can get to them.
“If the city's effective in pushing everybody out into the outlying neighborhoods like southeast and west Louisville, we can't find people to offer them food or clothes or shoes,” he said.
Susan Buchino is an assistant professor at the University of Louisville, and was previously the city’s Homeless Services director.
She said providers have a lot working against them: lack of city funding , being underpaid and overworked, and being unable to reach unhoused people after an encampment clearing.
“I think that encampment sweeps are a form of violence. And the question remains, Where are they supposed to go? And there is no answer. The city has not provided an answer,” she said.
City officials have touted plans to build more affordable and temporary housing as a solution to the homelessness crisis.
Buchino said tackling homelessness shouldn’t just be limited to affordable and temporary housing. The city should take a long-term approach to build trust and relationships with unhoused people, she said.
“I'm not confident that our leaders either in [the Metro] Council or the administration understand the crisis,” she said.
In January, Mayor Craig Greenberg announced Louisville Metro plans to invest millions into affordable housing and creating a “community care campus” with a medical respite center and other resources. There’s no clear timeline on when the campus will be up and running.
Louisville’s Deputy Mayor of Public Health and Services Nicole George said affordable housing is a top priority and services need to be funded more. But she said clearing encampments is still a part of the administration’s strategy to tackle homelessness.
“Even if, in the unfortunate situation, someone because of lack of services, someone moves to another location, the intent is for them to move to another location with less risk.”
George represented Metro Council’s District 21 until the start of this year, when she joined the administration. One of her last pieces of legislation imposed penalties for camping in public.
Housing advocates say it could take years for the city’s plans for affordable housing to come to fruition. Until then, they say the uncertainty and trauma encampment clearings create for unhoused residents loom large, Derby season or not.