Kentucky’s COVID-19 cases are the highest they’ve been since January, and housing advocates are concerned Louisville Metro government lacks an adequate plan to keep unsheltered residents safe. 

The city is assessing ━ and clearing ━ homeless encampments. Officials say it’s part of a multi-phase effort to address the homelessness crisis. 

Donny Greene is co-founder of Feed Louisville, a grassroots effort that delivers meals to unsheltered residents. He said displacing them isn’t the answer.

“Clearing a camp right now, especially with COVID numbers the way they are, is punching down. There’s no way around it: you’re taking a vulnerable population and further criminalizing them and moving them,” Greene said. 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cautions against clearing camps when individual housing options aren’t available ━ that’s the case right now in Louisville. Louisville officials are instead hoping to get people into transitional housing, like shelters. 

Between June and July, University of Louisville researchers surveyed 111 unsheltered residents from 13 different encampments. The majority of respondents said they would rather sleep outside than in indoor, crowded settings. 

The reasons they listed included feeling unsafe; the risk of catching someone else’s illness; a lack of privacy; separation from loved ones with other gender identities and the inability to take pets with them.

Leslea Townsend Cronin is executive director of the Homeless Coalition of Southern Indiana. She said when people living on the streets are displaced, they’re more likely to set up camp elsewhere, than they are to enter the shelter network. 

“It’s not just a tent that they’re living in temporarily, it’s their home and their stable place. So, when you ask them to move, it can be really triggering and traumatizing for them,” Townsend Cronin said. “We’ve had houseless individuals who have been stable in their treatment for six months and it’s because they’ve had some stability in their camp.”

Townsend Cronin said Louisvillians displaced during camp clearings are seeking help across state lines.

“We’ve seen quite a few people crossing the river because of what [Louisville Metro is] doing with the homeless camps,” Townsend Cronin said. “We aren’t in much of a better situation in Southern Indiana. In fact, Louisville actually probably has a little more resources for housing.”

Greene said local officials have the power and federal funds to house residents and ease the crisis at hand.

“We could solve our homeless problem tomorrow, if we had the political will and the courage to do so ━ we have enough money from the [American Rescue Plan] coming in that we could literally shelter everyone in place,” Greene said. “Human lives shouldn’t hang in the balance of a city budget.”

Louisville officials and Metro Council Members are proposing a resolution that would prioritize homelessness resources and affordable housing when spending more than $300 million in federal coronavirus relief funds. The budget committee is set to discuss it next week.  

The city’s plan includes the possibility of setting up temporary, non-congregate shelter options like in hotels or motels, but the timeline and details are unclear. 

Another phase in the city’s approach aims to designate an outdoor space for people experiencing homelessness to more immediately access services.

“You’re gonna put all the houseless people in there, you’re going to criminalize everyone outside of that camp even further. And once you do that, you can then over-police the people in the camp,” Greene said. “That means someone’s going to spend years living inside [the city’s] ‘safe outdoor space.’ That’s an open air prison.”

Greene said, with the city’s overwhelming lack of affordable housing, it could be several years before unsheltered residents are able to transition to more stable homes. 

“We spend so much time qualifying people for housing and saying ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps,’” Greene said. “We have an affordable housing shortage and we have a shortage of transitional housing. But that is by our own choice and our own doing.”

To successfully eliminate the longstanding homelessness crisis, Greene said officials must put human needs before bureaucratic processes ━ and implement a housing-first approach. It’s a human services approach that prioritizes placing unsheltered residents in permanent housing. 

The idea behind housing first is to ensure humans’ basic needs are met and, in turn, allow them the time and capacity to focus on meeting personal goals, improving themselves and quality of life. Several countries, including Canada and New Zealand have adopted the strategy and dedicated substantial funding to support it. 

A 2012 study by the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute shows participants of U.S. housing-first programs were more than 80% more likely to retain their housing than people who received other services.

Yasmine Jumaa is WFPL’s race and equity reporter.