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Kentucky lawmakers dine with homeless people as they consider creating unlawful camping offense

Kentucky state Sen. Robin Webb, right, chats over lunch with a woman who is currently residing in a shelter, Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024, in Frankfort, Ky., comes as lawmakers consider a sweeping criminal justice bill that would affect the homeless. (AP Photo/Bruce Schreiner)

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky lawmakers weighing a bill to make sleeping on a sidewalk or under a bridge illegal shared a meal of fried chicken and green beans Wednesday with people who could be most affected by the legislation.

The luncheon in the Capitol Annex gave lawmakers a glimpse into the lives of unhoused Kentuckians as they consider a sweeping criminal justice measure that critics say would criminalize homelessness. A leading supporter says the intent is to steer them toward treatment, not put them in jail.

Impassioned speeches over the legislation — which would impose harsher sentences for an array of crimes — gave way to a quiet buffet lunch where lawmakers chatted with a small group of people residing in shelters. Lawmakers trickled in and out of the room, taking a break from committee meetings.

Republican Sen. Adrienne Southworth said she spoke with a woman stuck for two years on a waiting list for subsidized housing. Democratic Sen. Robin Webb heard another woman recount the setbacks that spiraled into her living on the streets. They shared a bond as natives of eastern Kentucky.

“They’re just working-class citizens and people who have an instance of bad luck,” Webb said later. "Affordable housing should be a priority of the legislature, and putting a face on it certainly doesn’t hurt because especially in rural areas, resources are limited and sometimes it’s hidden.”

Several thousand people experience homelessness in Kentucky on a given night, advocates say.

The Kentucky House recently passed the legislation that includes creating an “unlawful camping" offense. It means people could be arrested for sleeping or setting up camp in public spaces — including streets, sidewalks, under bridges and in front of businesses or public buildings. A first offense would be treated as a violation, with subsequent offenses designated as a misdemeanor. An amended version would allow people to sleep in vehicles in public for up to 12 hours without being charged with unlawful camping.

Local governments could choose to designate temporary camping locations for unsheltered people.

The bill is awaiting action in the Senate. Republicans have supermajorities in both chambers.

One of the most contentious sections would create a “three-strikes” penalty to lock up people for the rest of their lives after conviction for a third violent felony offense. The provisions dealing with homelessness also have drawn considerable pushback.

An advocate said Wednesday that it was important for lawmakers to hear directly from the unhoused.

“This is why we brought our folks here to allow legislators to see, hear and know the people who are being impacted by their actions,” said Ginny Ramsey, director of the Catholic Action Center, which has spent years working with people living on the streets.

Andrew Chase Mason, 29, who is staying in a shelter, said she enjoyed chatting with Webb over lunch. “It's always nice getting to meet new people,” Mason said. She said she struggled years ago with drugs and alcohol but said she's ready to get a job and a place of her own.

She said she spent nights sleeping outside, next to a building in Lexington, putting her clothes underneath her for a bit of a cushion. She would have been in violation of the legislation now being considered, said Thomas Caudill, a volunteer who drives a van at night offering people rides to shelters. He also hands out food, blankets, gloves and socks as he checks on those without homes.

Caudill was deeply skeptical of the sections of the bill dealing with homelessness, saying: “It’s judging them because they’re under the bridge."

Critics of the homeless provisions include the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, which has branded the measure as harsh and misdirected.

“We cannot arrest our way out of homelessness,” ACLU of Kentucky spokeswoman Angela Cooper said in a statement. "Investing in services that will treat the root causes of these problems, like affordable housing and job training, is a more effective solution than relying on punishment and incarceration.”

Republican Rep. John Hodgson, a leading proponent of the homeless provisions, said he had a nice chat with an unhoused man during the lunch. Their topics included the legislation being considered.

Homeless camping on streets or sidewalks can create traffic hazards and hurt businesses, he said.

The goal is to direct the homeless into substance abuse, mental health and job training services to improve their lives, not to put them in jail, said Hodgson. For some of them, Hodgson said, “they’re not going to get any help if they don’t have a little bit of a stick to push them into that."