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Proposed anti-crime bill makes street camping illegal in Kentucky

A man sits at an intersection in downtown Louisville with a sign asking for help.
J. Tyler Franklin
Street camping would be banned under legislation proposed in Kentucky.

State lawmakers are considering legislation that would ban street camping and end funding for certain programs that provide permanent housing.

Sandy Chester said it always felt like people were looking at him and judging him for sleeping in his car. Even during the day, he could feel eyes on him, sure that people could tell he didn’t have access to a laundry machine to wash the clothes on his back.

There was no going home, taking off his shoes, watching some TV and taking a shower. The closest he could get was a temporary shelter and a meal with no guarantee that he’d get a space the next day.

“I got to have a foundation first,” Chester said. “I didn't have nowhere to go. I had to figure out how I was gonna wash my clothes. I got to have somewhere where I can start.”

Chester got help through a Louisville program that emphasizes a “Housing First” approach, which prioritizes getting someone into permanent housing and then providing wraparound services, like addiction recovery and counseling.

“You start feeling good about yourself,” Chester said. “Then you start seeing change and then you start getting better. And then you go from there.”

The street camping that Chester relied on for survival and the Housing First approach that helped him get back on his feet are now under scrutiny in Frankfort.

Louisville-area Republican state lawmakers plan to sponsor legislation in January that would ban street camping, add unlawful camping to Kentucky’s “stand your ground” law and cut funding for Housing First initiatives.

The proposals are one part of a sweeping, 68-page bill that increases penalties for violent crimes and drug trafficking. It’s called the Safer Kentucky Act.

Rep. John Hodgson of Louisville, one of the bill’s supporters, said he believes the ban will improve public safety in the city.

“If somebody wants to seek treatment, that’s awesome. If they want to seek permanent supportive housing, that's great,” Hodgson said. “But if they're not going to seek treatment, and they're not going to abide by the laws of a civilized society, they need to go somewhere else.”

Outlawing sleeping outside

Under the proposal, a person would be guilty of unlawful camping if they enter or remain in an undesignated public or private area with the intention of sleeping there. And that includes sleeping in their car on a public street, or in a park.

According to the current draft, if a person refuses to leave on the first offense, it becomes a Class B misdemeanor charge. That is equivalent to a first-time DUI or public intoxication, carrying a maximum punishment of 90 days in jail and fines of up to $250.

The language around homelessness in the Safer Kentucky Act closely mirrors proposals that have been put forward — and passed — in other states, like Texas. Those efforts were led by a conservative-leaning think tank called The Cicero Institute. The institute advocates for a ban on street camping and cutting funding for Housing First programs in favor of temporary shelters or sanctioned outdoor spaces.

Bryan Sunderland, the executive director of their lobbying offshoot Cicero Action and a former deputy chief of staff under Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, said they have not formally engaged a lobbyist in Kentucky but have provided resources to legislators in nearly every state. He said the group argues for a services-first approach to address homelessness, and enforcement to back it up.

“A lot of times, the enforcement piece is mischaracterized by some as criminalizing homelessness or something like that. But really, it's the tool that's necessary to get them the help they need,” Sunderland said.

Homeless encampments are already routinely removed in Louisville. Kevin Muench, a legal fellow with the ACLU of Kentucky who studies such encampments, said that when the city moves in to clear them out, people can lose all of their possessions including documents, family photos and medical devices.

“Destroying property and disrupting these communities that are already pretty fragile is not a way to improve homelessness,” Muench said.

According to Muench, for many unsheltered people, losing belongings in an encampment sweep can be catastrophic enough, let alone paying a fine or spending the night in jail.

“That's their way of finding housing in the absence of four walls and a roof. And so taking those things away just sets them back a further step,” Muench said.

Muench said he fears adding more penalties for street camping will not prevent it. For many people, street camping is the only — or maybe even the best available — option. It’s not uncommon in Louisville for shelters to be at capacity at night, according to the RAVE alert system operated by Louisville’s Coalition for the Homeless. Most are a single-sex, congregate settings, and beds for whole families are hard to come by.

While homelessness is most prevalent in urban areas, it also exists in every one of Kentucky’s 120 counties. Adrienne Bush, the executive director of the Homeless & Housing Coalition of Kentucky, noted that counties across the state don’t have equal resources to assist people needing emergency shelter.

“We have some real service deserts across the state. Not every county has a shelter. Not every town has a shelter,” Bush said. “My concern is, with the language as it's currently drafted, people who don't even have a shelter in their community to go to would be in violation of this law.”

Cutting funding for Housing First

The Safer Kentucky Act also forbids local governments from adopting any policy that “directly or indirectly prohibits or discourages” the enforcement of the law — although it does allow for diversion programs that provide alternatives to citation or arrest.

The proposal would also add unlawful camping to Kentucky’s “stand your ground” law, saying property owners have the right to use force if they ask a person illegally camping to leave and that person responds with force or “threatens to use force.” Arguably, that is already covered under Kentucky law, which already allows one to protect oneself from assault on one’s own property.

In an initial hearing of the draft legislation this month, legislators questioned whether bringing use of force into the equation might encourage additional violence against homeless people, who are already at a greater risk.

“What really concerns me about this almost encouragement of vigilante behavior is that you're going to also have individuals with mental illness, with communication disorders, individuals that don't speak English as a first language and aren't able to explain very quickly to somebody who thinks they're doing something wrong, that they're not,” said Rep. Nima Kulkarni, a Democrat from Louisville.

Finally, the Safer Kentucky Act would forbid the use of state and some federal money to fund Housing First initiatives, like the kind Chester used. It specifically says no initiatives that provide permanent housing without “behavioral and rehabilitative requirements.”

Some advocates, like Catherine McGeeney with The Coalition for the Homeless, said initiatives that get people into permanent housing first work.

“We have to consider solutions that actually solve the problem of homelessness, versus erasing it from our sight,” McGeenery said.

The Housing First initiatives within Louisville have a 97-98% success rate of keeping people housed for more than two years after they initially being placed in the program over the past decade, according to data from the Homeless Management Information System.

McGeeney said data show homelessness is strongly correlated with rent prices — and that the coalition's experience with Housing First indicates permanent housing is the solution, and people can take advantage of services once they don’t have to worry about where they’ll stay that night.

But Rep. Hodgson, one of the bill’s proponents, said using a Housing First framework has already played itself out.

“Housing First is an abject failure all over America,” Hodgson said. “It increases homelessness and increases misery. It increases drug abuse, and drives the cost through the roof for the taxpayers.”

Hodgson said the state should focus on emergency, temporary housing that encourages people to access services and then lift themselves into permanent housing. He noted the drafted legislation also allows cities to designate specific outdoor or indoor areas for use as temporary shelters, like Louisville’s “safe outdoor space,” Hope Village.

He said that people are choosing not to seek help — and if that’s the case, the city has no other choice than to get them off the street.

“We as a society need to step into there and say ‘If you want to live out in the woods somewhere, that's okay’,” Hodgson said. “But you can't live here in this public place. And we need to encourage you to get into treatment.”

A solution for some

Like Chester, permanent housing changed Michael Embree’s life. Embree said that he struggled with addiction when he was homeless. Sometimes, if he needed to spend a night indoors, the only people who would open their doors were drug dealers and users.

Embree said he tried getting clean while still experiencing homelessness, but found it close to impossible to stay that way. He said after years of instability, housing gave him a stepping off point to kick addiction, to find jobs.

“It just changed my life, made my life so much better, where it made me want to give back and do whatever I can,” Embree said.

Embree said he’s hopeful the city and state can come up with more permanent solutions to homelessness. People experiencing homelessness are part of the community too, he said, and their safety and wellbeing should be prioritized at the same level as sheltered members of the community.

“People that live in houses and see homeless people around a neighborhood, I feel like we should get them involved too,” Embree said. “We can all put our brains together, we can come up with a better solution.”

This story has been updated.

Sylvia is the Capitol reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Lexington, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email her at sgoodman@lpm.org.

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