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COLUMN: Punishing the homeless is not helpful, and legislators should know better

Birds fly past the State Capitol in Frankfort, Kentucky, on Friday, October 13, 2023. Photo by Aidan Thompson

Kentucky’s General Assembly is back in session for 2024, and they are courting controversy once again.

Perhaps the most eye-catching bill being considered is House Bill 9, which seeks to define unconscious bias trainings and diversity, equity and inclusion programs at universities as discriminatory and prohibit their implementation. This is in line with broader patterns in national Republican politics.

But there is something else moving through the legislative process that is less obvious and more cruel than petty culture war policies: criminalizing homelessness.

The bill that would lead to this outcome is HB-5, dubbed the “Safer Kentucky Act,” and outlines an extremely skewed vision of safety in the Commonwealth. It would restrict charities from posting bail of $5,000 or more, loosen requirements for involuntary commitment of those suffering from mental illness and permit businesses to use force against suspected shoplifters.

And it would also create the offense of unlawful camping on public or private property.

This would be bad enough on its own, but the bill goes further to deny local municipalities the authority to interfere with the policy’s enforcement, make publicly funded permanent housing initiatives more inaccessible for individuals struggling with addiction and, worst of all, authorize the use of force — including deadly force — against those suspected of committing property crimes, including unlawful camping.

One might wonder why a criminal justice bill includes a section dealing with homelessness alongside sections on carjacking, fentanyl possession and criminal mischief. The apparent equivocation of setting up a temporary shelter in the wrong place and the killing of a first responder — something else the bill addresses — strikes me as an inappropriate way of handling a crisis of housing.

Something I have noticed in the broad discourse around the prevalence of homelessness is the implicit assumption that the discomfort of property owners with the visible presence of homeless people is a greater injustice than the fact that people cannot access housing. The text of this bill seems to indicate that its supporters share this belief.

Much research has been done on the issue of homelessness and what solutions are most effective at addressing it, but even without being familiar with this body of work, one can infer that the punitive measures that public policy most often utilizes are not working based on the fact that homelessness continues to be a problem.

As the real estate market persists in driving up rent prices and inflation (or price gouging, depending on who you ask) makes other necessities increasingly unaffordable, the matter of people being without housing will only become more pressing. Kentuckians deserve better from their lawmakers than policies restricting where they can shelter from the elements when they have nowhere else to go but a tent.

The irony is not lost on me that someone so disillusioned with the Christian faith as me must implore a legislature that is filled almost completely with professed Christians to be merciful to the poor and destitute. It fails to surprise me anymore that politicians are cynically selective in their application of Christian morality to their politics, but it is at least still remarkable.

At the time of writing this piece, the bill has passed the House of Representatives with the unlawful camping clause intact and is making its way through the Senate. It may be unrealistic to expect lawmakers to show compassion for the unhoused population of Kentucky at this point, but I will dare to hope that I will be surprised.

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