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Unhoused residents, service providers in Louisville concerned about Safer Kentucky Act

A row of tents above a grassy area
Divya Karthikeyan
The Safer Kentucky Act does not allow street camping or encampments like this one, except in certain designated areas.

A new law called the Safer Kentucky Act will make it illegal for people to camp on the streets. Here’s how it could impact unhoused Louisville residents and the strapped service providers whose jobs are about to get harder.

On a recent rainy Thursday morning, outreach worker Angel Sivado got into her packed SUV. She was ready with snack bags and harm reduction tools like Narcan and fentanyl test strips for people struggling with substance use issues.

Sivado works for the Louisville service organization St. John Center, and was doing her daily rounds to check on clients across the city.

Tagging along in the backseat was Clayton, who didn’t want us to use his full name. Sivado said the plan was to take him to the hotel in south Louisville, where he’s been staying for two months while on the waiting list for permanent housing. Before that, he spent two years camping outside.

He said he had a hard time staying in one place when he was on the street because of camp clearings.

“You can’t go nowhere, you know? You leave there, you go somewhere and, ‘You can’t be here. You go there and you can’t be here.’ Where do you want us to go?” he said.

In January, the St. John Center started housing people at three Louisville hotels using a one-time $350,000 inclement weather grant from the city.

The pilot is going well, a St. John representative said, but the money is going to run out by the end of the month.

For now, Clayton’s hotel room is a place for him and his dog, Haus. For him, Haus is home.

“I’m not homeless, I’m houseless, you know what I’m saying? As long as I got my dog, I’m home,” he said.

A dog looks up at a person
Divya Karthikeyan
Clayton and his dog, Haus, at the hotel where they're staying.

Republican State Representative Jared Bauman introduced House Bill 5 or the Safer Kentucky Act in January. It included a number of penalties, including banning street camping, in the name of public safety. It makes it a Class B misdemeanor for every offense after the first for sleeping on public streets.

“The foundation for civilized society in Kentucky is public safety, security and protection, and our foundation is broken,” Bauman said when he introduced his legislation on the House floor.

The law goes into effect in July, and it has Clayton worried.

“It's just a stroke of bad luck, it ain't nobody's fault,” he said, referring to how anyone could become homeless. “And everybody out here is one mistake away from being out here with me.”

Outreach proving harder

Outreach worker Sivado said she’s found it hard to reach her clients. On that rainy morning, she was trying to find Serina Comstock, a St. John’s client who she was seeking for weeks.

As a result of frequent encampment clearings, more and more people have moved into wooded areas the city to set up their tents.

It was in a place like that, a wooded area off Bicknell Road in south Louisville, and that Sivado chanced upon Comstock that morning.

Comstock said she’s been homeless for close to five years, after she lost custody of her three kids, and she’s actively struggling with an addiction.

“I didn't touch a drug a single day in my life until I got in trouble and they took my kids away,” she said.

A person seated on the edge of a sidewalk
Divya Karthikeyan
Serina Comstock outside the Bicknell Road encampment in early April 2024.

Sponsors of the Safer Kentucky Act say the goal is to get people into treatment — people like Comstock.

She said she’s tried to go to rehab, but it hasn’t worked for her so far. She said she wants to be with her kids, but not until she straightens out her life and deals with her addiction.

Comstock is working on getting a Kentucky state ID. Then, she hopes, she can get a housing voucher to get back on her feet.

According to Mayor Craig Greenberg’s spokesperson Kevin Trager, the first time officers find someone camping in a public place, a Louisville Metro Police Department officer gives them a verbal warning. If officers find them camping again, they cite the person.

But the Safer Kentucky Act, which takes effect this summer, requires police to cite them first for violating the street camping ban, then charge them with a Class B misdemeanor on the second offense.

“The jails are gonna get overrun, they're gonna have overcrowding, and then they'd have to go to start letting people go. I mean, it's just going to be a never-ending cycle that never quits,” Comstock said.

She is frustrated some lawmakers think this approach is a solution to homelessness, and wants lawmakers to “walk a day in our shoes,” she said.

“You can’t sit there and say this is going to work because you’ve never been in that situation before,” he said.

How did your state lawmakers vote on the "Safer Kentucky Act"?

Votes below represent how lawmakers voted on the final passage of the bill in their respective chamber.

*This is just to find the right lawmakers. We do not store your information.

House Senate

Charles Brian McAdams, the outreach manager at St. Johns, said many of his clients have experienced trauma.

“It could be domestic violence, childhood abuse, childhood neglect, that continues to live with you long after that. It can be unexpected medical bills, unexpected medical conditions, loss of job. Just any way you wish, you can get hit,” he said.

That’s true for Comstock and Clayton, who each suffered the deaths of people close to them: her mother, his wife.

The inside of an office with vaulted, ornate ceilings and walls
Divya Karthikeyan
The reception at the St. John Center, a day shelter for men experiencing homelessness. Its staff conduct street outreach and work to provide pathways to permanent supportive housing.

McAdams said his job is to keep people alive and make sure they’re housed. He believes in the Housing First approach: get people into stable housing so they can get help addressing issues like addiction, before trying to help them get a job.

But he wonders how the Safer Kentucky Act will affect outreach workers and service providers. It could make his job harder.

“Is there a move towards incarcerating more of my clients, so more of my time is spent in the courthouse with my clients? Do my clients hide more? And so it makes it harder for me to provide services?” he said.

Questions about enforcing HB 5 in Louisville

Trager, Greenberg’s spokesperson, said city agencies are trying to figure out how to implement the law, especially when it comes to looking at ways to avoid arresting violators and focus more on providing services through the city’s Homeless Service Division.

“We’re gonna continue meeting and getting legal opinions as time goes forward,” he said.

They intend to follow and enforce the law, said Scottie Ellis, a senior Greenberg spokesperson.

Trager said a misdemeanor charge doesn’t mean a person found violating the Safer Kentucky Act in Louisville would be automatically arrested and thrown in jail.

“We don’t have the manpower to do that, and we don’t want to do that,” he said. But if they miss a court date, or are convicted by a judge, they could face up to 90 days in jail or a $250 fine.

People experiencing homelessness, and those who serve them, say the Safer Kentucky Act could shift their goals. Instead of focusing on getting into stable housing, they’ll be working to avoid criminal charges because they have to sleep outdoors.

Divya is LPM's Race & Equity Reporter. Email Divya at dkarthikeyan@lpm.org.

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