Mayor Greg Fischer announced at a press conference Monday that the clearing of homeless camps by city workers would be suspended until notification procedures are passed into law. | Photo by Joe Sonka

Mayor Greg Fischer announced on Monday that city workers would suspend all operations clearing out homeless encampments in Louisville until Metro Council passed an ordinance codifying the process to notify those who live in such camps in January.

Fischer called the press conference to announce this decision following criticism of his administration in recent months over the manner in which several homeless camps were cleared, with some questioning whether this lived up to Louisville’s “compassionate city” slogan.

Referring to an incident in October when a Portland camp was cleared without proper notice and some occupants lost valuable personal items, Fischer said there had been “some occasions when we have not lived up to our standards,” but added that the city would make adjustments to do better.

While conceding some faults, Fischer added that “the vast majority of these cleanups happen for public safety and public health reasons,” citing a recent outbreak of hepatitis A that is prevalent among the homeless population.

“I think everybody knows we’re having a hepatitis A outbreak in the community, so conditions in these camps are sometimes unsafe and unsanitary,” said Fischer. “Hepatitis A outbreak among our homeless population is vastly, vastly disproportionately high, and cannot just lead to an individual health crisis, but to a public health crisis as well.”

Fischer added: “People are saying ‘should we clean a camp out, is that the compassionate thing to do?’ Is it a compassionate thing for a camp to be a breeding ground for hepatitis A? Those are the types of tradeoffs that you’ve got to make in this work.”

Noting that some have mocked his frequent emphasis on compassion as hypocritical in light of recent clearances of homeless camps, Fischer noted that this was “an aspirational goal” for the city, and “it shouldn’t be a word that people use against each other for some reason when we fall short of what we’re trying to do. But it is a standard that we set for ourselves.”

Fischer endorsed the ordinance filed last month by Councilman Bill Hollander, D-9, which would codify the city’s 21-day notice for homeless camp occupants in many cases before they could be cleared by city workers, in addition to alerting social services groups and temporarily storing items of personal value that are left behind.

Mayor Greg Fischer | Photo by Joe Sonka

Fischer said that such clearances would be halted “in the next few weeks, until after this ordinance passes and updated procedures are in place,” adding that the holidays are not a good time to clear such camps.

He also announced the creation of a Homeless Encampment Task Force — made up of the Coalition for the Homeless, St. John’s Center, LMPD, Metro Corrections, and Office for Resilience and Community Services — which will review procedures and “determine if there are better ways to serve our homeless citizens.”

While citing successful local initiatives to reduce homelessness among youth and veterans, Fischer warned that federal and state trends indicated that less government funding would be available to tackle  this issue.

Noting his concern of the “so-called tax reform” bill expected to be passed by Congress this week, as well as an expected decrease in available state and local funding due to the public pension crisis, Fischer said that local government would increasingly be left with “unfunded mandates” to address the services for the homeless.

“We can have all the best intentions in the world, but if we don’t have financial resources behind what we’re doing, we’re not going to get the results that we need,” said Fischer. “So when you’re talking to your federal representatives, your state representatives, advocate for these dollars. Advocate for these resources.”

Dr. Sarah Moyer, the director of the Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness confirmed that Louisville is “in the middle of a hepatitis A outbreak among the homeless and people who use drugs,” and that city workers “have been able to get 900 vaccines out to those high-risk populations in the last two to three weeks.”

Natalie Harris, the executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless, said that “until we can figure out how to get more affordable housing in our community and more safe shelters and alternatives for people to be in until they can get into that housing, we’re in trouble. We have citizens that are sleeping on the street.”

Harris told IL after the meeting that the members of the task force had already been meeting over the past several months. While there is enough room in Louisville shelters for the homeless on especially cold “white flag” nights, Harris said there is not nearly enough space on other nights.

Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]