A committee of the Lexington council gave preliminary approval Tuesday for standard operating procedures governing the removal of homeless camps on public property despite pleas from some in the homeless community for an ordinance guaranteeing 21-day notice prior to a camp’s removal.
The Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council’s General Government and Social Services Committee voted 7 to 2 to approve the new standard operating procedures that include documentation that the camp has been notified of a pending demolition or removal. The city’s homeless street outreach team will have five days to talk to the people in the encampment. That team will have seven days to come up with a plan that includes a timeline for when the camp will be removed.
The Homeless Prevention and Intervention Board, a group of homeless providers and other community leaders, will have oversight over the policies. That board’s membership unanimously approved the standard operating procedures at a meeting in June, said Polly Ruddick, director of the Office of Homeless Prevention and Intervention.
Ruddick said the standard operating procedures make permanent what the city is already doing.
The full council won’t vote on the resolution approving the operating procedures until August.
The procedures only pertain to public property. Homeless camps on private land can be cleared at any time. The city does not have jurisdiction over private landowners.
But some council members said they still supported an ordinance and did not vote in favor of the operating procedure.
“I am a very strong advocate for an ordinance,” said Councilwoman Kathy Plomin.
Plomin said the street outreach team, which connects homeless people with services during camp removal process, has not yet been hired. Ruddick said they hope to have that team hired by Sept. 1. Until then, Ruddick will serve as the street outreach coordinator.
Plomin said the current standard operating procedures don’t go far enough.
“I don’t think it has enough bite to it,” Plomin said of the standard of operating procedures. “There are too many holes in it.”
The issue of how the city clears homeless camps first surfaced this winter when Lexington cleared multiple homeless camps when temperatures plummeted below zero in January. The committee has been debating whether an ordinance was needed since April.
That angered some in the homeless community who said some of the camps were taken down with very little notice, a charge city officials denied. Others said not all divisions within the city government have the same procedures when it comes to the removal of homeless camps.
Multiple city divisions can be involved with the removal of a homeless camp —the police, code enforcement, streets and roads, parks and recreation and the Office of Homelessness Prevention and Intervention.
Many urged the council to adopt a similar ordinance to the one Louisville passed more than a year ago after Kentucky’s largest city received pushback after clearing homeless camps with little notice.
Natalie Harris, executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless in Louisville, told the Lexington council committee Tuesday what prompted the ordinance was the removal of the Ninth Street camp in Louisville that was moved before a major 5K race. The city only give the camps two days prior to the camp being cleaned.
“People lost uniforms for jobs,” Harris said. There was no one entity in the city that oversaw clearing homeless camps. That’s why the ordinance was needed and passed, she said.
“It’s not a right of trespass,” Harris said. “It’s a right of notification.”
Harris said the ordinance also allows nonprofits to work with the homeless, which helps the city.
More than a dozen homeless people and advocates attended the Tuesday committee meeting.
Ginny Ramsey, of the Catholic Action Center, said the standard operating procedures don’t go far enough.
“The bottom line is the notification of the people in the camps,” Ramsey said. “We need those set days.”
The city’s legal department has previously said it has concerns about the legality of allowing the homeless to remain on property for a certain period of time but not allowing other groups of people to remain on public property. That could be selective prosecution, city lawyers previously said during a meeting in April.
Harris said Louisville has not been sued over its ordinance.
Melissa Murphy, a lawyer with the city, said the standard operating procedures is a first step and a compromise.
“The reason why there is a lack of time requirements is that we need flexibility,” Murphy said.
Ruddick has previously said some camps take more than 21 days to clear as providers find housing for people.
Councilwoman Jennifer Reynolds said she appreciated the compromise but it still gave her pause.
“But I still have concerns about people not having warning,” Reynolds said.
Councilwoman Angela Evans said the procedures give the city more opportunity to house more people by not having a specific date for a camp to be removed.
“The goal is housing,” Evans said.
Vice Mayor Steve Kay said if the operating procedures don’t work, the council can come back and fix it.
Plomin said she may return to the committee with a possible ordinance in the fall.
Those who voted in opposition: Plomin, Reynolds. Those who voted in favor: James Brown, Vice Mayor Steve Kay, Lamb, Chuck Ellinger II, Bill Farmer Jr., Angela Evans and Richard Moloney.