LOUISVILLE, Ky. — One of the priority bills state Republican lawmakers hope to pass in the upcoming legislative session is the Safer Kentucky Act.

What You Need To Know

  • A broad-reaching proposed bill by Republican lawmakers would make street camping a crime 

  • It would also bans state dollars from going towards housing programs that don’t require someone to seek treatment for substance abuse 

  • Homeless advocates don't believe this is the right way to address the issue 

  • The legislative session begins on Jan. 2

Ahead of the beginning of the 2024 legislative session, a draft of the broad-reaching public safety bill has been released. Its provisions include creating a three-strike law for violent felonies, tightening restrictions on groups that raise money for bail, and enhancing penalties for several crimes.

Another section would essentially criminalize homelessness, according to advocates. 

The draft bill would make street camping, such as on streets or under bridges, a crime. The proposal also bans state dollars from going toward housing programs that don’t require someone to seek treatment for substance abuse. 

The draft language of the Safer Kentucky Act also allows cities to designate an area where camping would be permitted.

“The street camping provisions are in place to protect the rights of property owners, public spaces and business owners across the commonwealth,” State Rep. Jared Bauman, R-Louisville, said during a December interim committee meeting in Frankfort.

Sarah Butler is the housing director for the St. John Center in Louisville (Spectrum News 1/Mason Brighton)

Sarah Butler, housing director for the St. John Center in Louisville, does not believe this is the right approach.

“Criminalizing someone’s lack of options because of a systemic problem is not the solution,” Butler said.

The center is one of Louisville’s day shelters. It also helps people find permanent housing.

Butler supports what is called the housing-first approach. It addresses homelessness by placing people in housing without treatment being a requirement. Once someone is off the street, Butler believes other issues can then be addressed. 

“Across our entire Louisville Continuum of Care, 97 to 98% of people who move into evidence-based housing-first permanent supportive housing still are in their same apartments two years later,” Butler said.

The Safer Kentucky Act draft bill makes treatment a requirement. 

During a December news conference, Republican lawmakers expressed concerns with the housing-first approach. State Rep. John Hodgson, R-Fisherville, called it an “abject failure.” 

“It increases homelessness, it increases misery, it increases drug abuse and drives the costs through the roof for the taxpayers,” Hodgson said.

Hodgson added individuals should commit to not using substances to receive housing.

“People that are on the street, unsheltered homeless, almost 70% of them have either serious mental illness, substance use disorder, or both,” Hodgson said. “And those people need to be encouraged to get into treatment.”

The Coalition for the Homeless also has concerns with what lawmakers have proposed.

“Jail isn’t the solution to homelessness. Banning street camping does not get people into housing. And telling local agencies they cannot spend federal dollars on Housing First programs will increase—not decrease — homelessness across the Commonwealth. That increase will be swift and obvious,” the organization said in a statement.  

Another issue facing Louisville and other cities is a lack of shelter beds. Butler explains there is more demand than available places to sleep.

“About 1,600 people experience homelessness on any given night in Louisville. There are 750 shelter beds in Louisville at any given time. So the chances that someone is sleeping outside because they don’t have another option are very prevalent,” Butler said.

Louisville also has a lack of affordable housing units. City leaders believe they’re short about 31,000 spaces. In October, Mayor Craig Greenberg unveiled a plan to add around half that number by 2027. 

Spectrum News 1 reached out to the mayor’s office about the Safer Kentucky Act’s street camping provisions.

“This proposed legislation acknowledges that we have a serious challenge with homelessness and the safe management of public spaces. We are still reviewing details and look forward to working with the General Assembly to get more of our community housed while ensuring safety,“ said Kevin Trager, Press Secretary for the Office of Mayor Craig Greenberg.

Butler invites state lawmakers to come see the work St. John does daily with the city’s homeless population and hear their solutions to these issues. 

“We’re all part of this community and we don’t need to criminalize people for trying to exist,” Butler said.

Lawmakers begin the legislative session on Jan. 2.