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Metro Council votes to penalize unsheltered residents for occupying public spaces

J. Tyler Franklin

Opponents of a measure that could penalize unsheltered residents who inhabit public spaces failed to stop its passage at Louisville Metro Council Thursday. Now they're calling on the mayor to overturn it.

The ordinance restricts unsheltered people from sleeping on city property, whether outdoors or in their cars, and bans homeless encampments that the city says pose a risk to housed residents’ safety. It also allows Louisville Metro to confiscate personal belongings if they’re in public walkways.

It passed 16-8, capping months of fierce debate. Two members did not cast a vote.

Democratic District 9 Council Member Bill Hollander sponsored the original 2018 legislation that offered protections to people and their belongings. He’s been a staunch advocate against the restrictions added to that law since they were proposed in September and said they would only create harm.

“Moving people from place to place isn't a plan. And it's cruel,” Hollander said at the meeting. “If you think we're seeing more homeless people on our streets and are frustrated by that, don't blame the ordinance, which didn't put them there and isn't keeping them there.”

Hollander said legal assistance organizations, including the Lexington Fair Housing Council, an organization that tries cases related to fair and equal housing issues in Kentucky, have raised alarm over the efficacy and constitutionality of the ordinance’s new rules. He said more than two dozen other organizations that advocate for and provide services to unsheltered residents had called on council members to table the measure until Mayor-elect Craig Greenberg’s administration is in place and has the opportunity to create a coordinated plan with service providers.

“Laws that create different penalties and rules for individuals because they are homeless have a clear disparate impact on many of the protected classes under the Fair Housing Act and therefore also violate the law,” Hollander said. “I don't know how this ordinance will be enforced by the Greenberg administration, but I'm grateful that the community and lawyers who protect the rights of our most vulnerable citizens will be watching closely.”

One of the sponsors, outgoing Council Member Nicole George of District 21 — a Democrat who will join Greenberg’s senior team and oversee public health and services — once again argued the ordinance aims to ensure equal access to public spaces and shield housed residents from what she and other supporters referred to as public instances of substance use and littering around some encampments.

“We do our houseless community a disservice and, quite frankly, anybody we label as poor, when we lump everyone together around these activities that we seek to address related with access to public space,” George said. “I know many people who are either housing insecure or who are homeless. And these are not the same people who will camp in an unmanaged alley across the street from a grandmother raising her grandkids.”

Ahead of a vote, District 4 Council Member Jecorey Arthur, a Democrat, prefaced his concerns by highlighting the lack of available shelter space in the city. He said the measure could lead to indiscriminate penalties.. He added it only furthers the risks facing already vulnerable residents.

“We have a shelter shortage where only 750 units are available but, just last year, we saw over 10,000 people experience houselessness,” Arthur said. “Our housing is unaffordable and our constituents who are unhoused are in survival mode. The stricter we get with camping, the harder we make it for the people who already have it the hardest because there's nowhere for them to go.”

Arthur pleaded with his colleagues to put the measure to rest and, instead, work on funding and providing services that could address the root cause of the homelessness crisis to keep financially struggling families from losing their homes and ending up on the streets.

“As of last month, 63% of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck. So, many of our housed constituents are one missed payment away from being in the same spot as our unhoused constituents,” Arthur said. “Instead of passing policy about where they can't go, we need to keep focusing on a policy to give them a place to go.”

Democratic Council Member Cassie Chambers Armstrong of District 8 also tried to argue the proposed measure had no benefit but would criminalize and burden low-income residents who are simply trying to survive. She added criminalizing people over circumstance could contribute undue stress and anxiety.

“For people with very few possessions, monetary fines will be ineffective at changing their behavior…because they have nowhere else to go and no other options to take,” Chambers Armstrong said. “The city can bring a collection action for unpaid fines, they can garnish someone's very minimal wages — a person can be kept out of housing until outstanding fines are paid. ”

People may live in fear of punishment by the city, she said.

Opponents of the measure, including council members, the Louisville Coalition for the Homeless, the ACLU of Kentucky and VOCAL-KY are calling on the mayor to veto it. They’re also urging concerned residents to sign a petition asking him to do so. However, Metro Council members could override any veto with a two-thirds majority vote.

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