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Metro Council proposal would put unsheltered residents at risk amid frigid temps

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J. Tyler Franklin
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Despite there being few places for houseless residents to go, sponsors continue to push a Louisville Metro Council proposal that would essentially prohibit them from inhabiting public spaces.

As temperatures plummet, Council’s Parks and Sustainability Committee considered another controversial change Thursday to an ordinance that was once meant to protect unsheltered residents. The original only restricts sleeping in recreational vehicles, or RVs, but the latest proposal would make it illegal to sleep in any car at a public park if you also live in it.

District 9 Council Member Bill Hollander, a Democrat who sponsored the protective legislation back in 2018, voiced his concerns at this week’s meeting.

“[This] is really a new and disturbing step backward,” Hollander said. “There are people throughout the community who live in cars because they don’t have anyplace else to live.”

Hollander said city laws already prohibit parking cars at parks after hours. He also raised issues with how the ordinance would be enforced without prejudice.

“To say, ‘Well, maybe if you’re napping in your car at a park, that would be okay. But not if it’s a temporary living accommodation.’ I don’t know how the police officers would know,” Hollander said. “Are we going to just enforce this against people who are homeless? It just doesn’t make any sense to me. I don’t understand what we’re doing here.”

Democratic Council Member Jecorey Arthur of District 4 asked members of the Parks and Sustainability Committee what prompted the proposed change that could harm already-vulnerable residents.

“Have we seen concerns with people sleeping in their cars at parks? Obviously, if you’re asleep, you aren’t a risk to anyone’s safety,” Arthur said.

“I have two instances of someone sleeping in their SUV in a park in my district. It’s every day, and he’s there all night long. So, you know, I just, it’s a problem,” Democratic District 14 Council Member Cindi Fowler responded.

Council President David James of District 6 is sponsoring the measure alongside two fellow Democrats, Pat Mulvihill of District 10 and Nicole George of District 21. James said some of his constituents have 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.”

Cosponsor George, who is retiring from the council at the end of this year, doubled down in support of the proposed restriction.

“We have two parks in particular where we routinely get calls about people sleeping in the park and it could be during the day, it’s not just relegated to nighttime activities,” George said. “I think the thinking here is if you’re not able to currently camp in a park at any time of the day, why wouldn’t that be extended to a vehicle?”

Democrats Donna Purvis of District 5 and Amy Holton Stewart of District 25 said, while they’ve gotten complaints about people camping at parks in their district, the issue at hand is existing city laws aren’t being carried out.

“The real issue is lack of enforcement. So until we get a handle on that things are going to continue to happen,” Purvis said.

“There needs to be a long-term solution to this,” Holton Stewart said. “We aren’t set up to take in these homeless individuals. The shelters are full.”

Arthur, of District 4, echoed Holton Stewart’s concerns and urged sponsors and committee members to consider and mitigate the underlying issues — lacking shelter space and an affordable housing shortage — as opposed to stacking hurdles against people who are houseless.

“The root issue is the fact that there isn’t a place for people to go. The family shelters have weeks, in some cases, monthslong wait lists. I just heard a story yesterday about a single mother with her kids sleeping in a car,” Arthur said. “I hear your concerns, but a one-size-fits-all solution to those specific issues, that are enforcement issues, doesn’t seem appropriate.”

Arthur said, instead of imposing a blanket solution that threatens to do more harm than not, city officials should invest in more shelter options. In fact, at a Budget Committee meeting later on Thursday evening, he proposed using $1.2 of nearly $30 million in surplus funds to pay for more temporary shelter options.

“Over 10,000 people experienced homelessness last year. That’s a 41% increase over the past three years,” Arthur said. “There are about 750 units of shelter in the city, less than 100 of them are for families, and the vacancy rate is extremely low.”

Some council members, including Republican Anthony Piagentini of District 19, pushed back against the request, saying the city’s already allocated money to build affordable housing. Arthur rebuked that and said it’s difficult for residents to get the supportive services they need to transfer to permanent housing when they lack stable living conditions.

“We know we need more housing, we’ve put money up for that, and we’ll continue to do that. But until then, we have an obligation to help shelter the unsheltered because their lives depend on it,” Arthur said. “Just think about the next few months that are going to be cold, where kids are sleeping outside…and make sure that we have funds set aside to get them taken care of.”

Budget Committee Chair Hollander voiced his support for Arthur’s proposal and said funding affordable transitional housing, while crucial, does not negate the need to fund a temporary shelter as well.

“The gap that we do have is for people who need temporary shelters, we just don’t have enough in this community,” Hollander said, “We’re simultaneously moving toward a change to the encampment ordinance. And I hear from colleagues who want to see more camp clearings. But when you have camp clearings, people have to go somewhere.”

In a 5-6 vote, the committee rejected the suggested amendment to route a fraction of the city’s overflow funds to create temporary accommodations for residents living on the streets.

The Parks and Sustainability Committee once again tabled the proposal to add more restrictions on where houseless residents can take shelter from the elements. The group will resume discussion of it in early December.

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