“When they come in and take our stuff, I don’t know what to do.”
Charles Bowers has watched police take down multiple camps where he was living with others experiencing homelessness in Lexington.
He was in one of those camps this winter when his wife died. They had been left with little or no blankets after the camp they had been staying in was taken down.
“I’ve had eight or nine camps torn down with no notice,” Bowers told a Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council committee on Tuesday.
He was one of more than 20 people experiencing homelessness who attended Tuesday’s General Government and Social Services Committee, where they urged the committee to enact an ordinance that would require giving homeless people a 21-day notice before an outdoor camp is dismantled. They also want a prohibition on taking down camps during the winter months — from March to November — and to make sure the Compassionate Caravan, an outreach program run by the Catholic Action Center, is notified if and when a camp is dismantled so people’s belongings can be stored.
The committee declined to pass the ordinance Tuesday, citing questions about its legality, but the topic could come up again as soon as June.
Ginny Ramsey, director of the Catholic Action Center, asked the committee to give her time to consult with lawyers about the legality of the ordinance. There are recent U.S. Court of Appeals opinions that deal specifically with the rights of homeless people on public property, she said.
The issue of how the city deals with the removal of homeless camps on public property first surfaced this winter when several were dismantled in early January.
Lexington city officials told the council during Tuesday’s meeting that homeless camps are routinely given more than 21 days of notice before a camp comes down and said an ordinance is not needed.
Polly Ruddick, director of the office of Homeless Prevention and Intervention, said the city needs more flexibility because each camp and the people in it are different.
“There are actual concerns about the legality in putting any time frame in an ordinance,” Ruddick said. “There is nothing that could be stated in the ordinance that LFUCG is not already doing.”
Ramsey said cleaning up a camp may take longer than 21 days but “we are asking for a minimum of 21 days.”
“It gives our people protection and the community protection to have an ordinance,” she said.
The proposed ordinance would only apply to publicly-owned land. Camps on private property could be torn down immediately.
City lawyers were skeptical of the proposal.
Treating people experiencing homelessness differently than other people who might be criminally trespassing on public property is problematic, said Melissa Murphy, a lawyer for the city. Homeless people would have 21 days to leave public property but other people accused of trespassing would not, she said.
“We can be accused of selective prosecution,” Murphy said.
Louisville has enacted a similar ordinance, several council members pointed out. Several other cities also have ordinances that set a minimum time frame for a homeless camp to be removed.
“I would like us to follow-up with Louisville. It’s been over a year and I don’t think they have ( been sued),” said Councilman Chuck Ellinger Jr.
Councilwoman Angela Evans said she is sympathetic but is also concerned the ordinance may cause the homeless more problems. Evans said the public will expect the camp to be gone within 21 days, even if the ordinance says at least 21 days.
Ellinger and other committee members said the ordinance is needed to guarantee that homeless people won’t lose their possessions and that rules regarding homeless camps won’t change with each new police chief and mayor.
“I am for the ordinance,” said Councilwoman Kathy Plomin. “We need to make sure when there is a leadership change that good work goes on.”