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Advocates say Kentucky's ban on street camping criminalizes homelessness


The U.S. Supreme Court is considering a case on whether camping bans that appear to target homeless people are constitutional when that person has nowhere else to go. Now, the case may focus on a ban in Grants Pass, Ore., but the outcome will have consequences across the country, including places like Kentucky where lawmakers just passed a similar ban. Kentucky Public Radio's Sylvia Goodman has the story.


MAURO JONES: Let me hear you one time - housing, not handcuffs.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Housing, not handcuffs.

JONES: (Chanting) Housing, not handcuffs.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Housing, not handcuffs.

SYLVIA GOODMAN, BYLINE: Advocates for homeless Kentuckians set up tents in a park across from a federal building in Louisville. They're calling on the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down a ban on unauthorized camping in public. The court heard oral arguments on the case out of Grants Pass, Ore. last week.

JONES: I just find that cruel and unusual punishment.

GOODMAN: That's Mauro Jones. He just got the keys to a house after being homeless for nearly a year.

JONES: Some people look at you just like you're nothing, like you're just trash. They should have housing for every person that is homeless in this country, not just in Louisville.

GOODMAN: For Kentucky and a few other states around the country, the stakes of this Supreme Court decision are especially high. Just a few weeks ago, Kentucky's Republican-controlled legislature passed a statewide ban on street camping, essentially a ban on public homelessness. One of the bill's sponsors, Republican State Representative John Hodgson says it's a matter of compassion, and cities need more tools to get people off the streets.

JOHN HODGSON: Even formerly addicted homeless people that I've talked to, they said, we need tough love. We need somebody to force us into rehab because when we're in the throes of addiction, we don't want to go.

GOODMAN: Kentucky's new law would impose a class B misdemeanor for second offenses. That carries a maximum $250 fine and 90 days in jail. Housing advocates in Kentucky and across the country say the bans effectively banish homeless people, some of whom have no other option but to sleep on the streets. James Suie, who is currently homeless, is from Murray, Ky., which has no emergency shelter. He says when he lost his housing, he left the area to find a shelter, but not everyone has that option.

JAMES SUIE: And we don't need to be putting people in jail, you know, just 'cause they can't afford to sleep somewhere.

GOODMAN: Homelessness is on the rise in Kentucky and across the country. According to a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development survey, more people were homeless in Kentucky last year than they have been since 2014. And across the country, homelessness increased 70% between 2021 and 2023. Eric Tars is the senior policy director at the National Homelessness Law Center. He says cities and states have increasingly turned to these bans instead of addressing an affordable housing crisis.

ERIC TARS: Because it's the most politically expedient thing to do to just pass a law and hide the cost of it in the jail budgets, in the law enforcement budgets.

GOODMAN: According to a city study, Louisville needs 36,000 more affordable units for the lowest income households.

TARS: And you can make that one encampment disappear for that one constituent, but you're not actually solving homelessness for that person, and so it's just going to move that camp somewhere else.

GOODMAN: Meanwhile, opponents to the bans say they are cruel and unusual, that you can't make someone's status a crime, and they say the laws aren't applied to everyone equally. Here's University of Louisville law professor Sam Marcosson.

SAM MARCOSSON: If somebody has a picnic in the park and takes a nap, you know, the city doesn't enforce this law against them. It enforces it against people who are homeless.

GOODMAN: If the U.S. Supreme Court rules against the camping ban in Grants Pass, it would open the door for constitutional challenges in other states, says Northern Kentucky University law professor Kenneth Katkin.

KENNETH KATKIN: If they challenge it under the U.S. Constitution, the outcomes are going to be identical.

GOODMAN: But Katkin says, after listening to last week's hearing, he's ready to predict the outcome of the case.

KATKIN: I feel confident to predict that the Supreme Court is going to uphold the Oregon law and reverse the Ninth Circuit.

GOODMAN: Kentucky's ban won't go into effect until mid-July, and the Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling at the end of June. For NPR News, I'm Sylvia Goodman in Louisville.

(SOUNDBITE OF KACEY MUSGRAVES SONG, "SLOW BURN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Sylvia Goodman
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