Letter to the Editor: HB 5 will not make Kentucky safer

Published 6:55 pm Wednesday, February 7, 2024

As the General Assembly meets to discuss vital issues and address problems Kentuckians face, some legislators are trying to trick us in a misguided effort to advance themselves.

This group has proposed a massive bill framed as “making Kentuckians safer.” Instead, it will only make people whose lives are truly unsafe, less safe; strip local governments of control over matters that directly address county and city-based policies; and stigmatize large numbers of people as criminals when they indeed are not.

HB 5 passed on its first day of discussion out of the House Judiciary Committee for full House consideration without sufficient hearings to shed light on the bill’s many disadvantages and without any idea how much money and administrative chaos it could cost. It may be fast tracked and reach the Senate before the public realizes the harm it will do.

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One example of HB 5’s harm is to criminalize homelessness. Not only would sleeping overnight in any public or private place be subject to arrest, fines and jailing, even ‘camping’ in one’s own car would be penalized.  While there is a crisis of available affordable housing, there is nothing in the bill to acknowledge that or provide more resources to communities.  Where are people to go? Nowhere in Kentucky are there sufficient homeless shelter beds or identified camping sites to deal with the problem. Yet there is nothing in the bill to aid local governments to expand services.

Groups that are particularly disadvantaged in the private housing market include those with disabilities and others who hold low paying jobs. The high cost of renting and a single turn of bad luck such as a health crisis can lead to eviction. An eviction makes finding other rentals much more difficult. Black and brown citizens are most affected because of discrimination.  In this way, HB 5 criminalizes poverty.

Some released from jail or prison find it extraordinarily difficult to gain housing or employment. This bill creates a smooth path to re-imprisonment for the person who has already paid for the wrong they did and has not done anything but be limited by the lack of provision for people in their situation.

Often when people think of homelessness, they think of people suffering from drug addiction and/or mental health problems.  HB 5 attacks the likelihood of helping these groups by making it impossible for local governments to use what has been shown to be the most effective policy: house people first and then get them into treatment. Without a stable place to sleep, eat or have a life of any sort, people are unable to benefit from treatment.

This bill makes it illegal for any local community to use the best practice of housing as the first step towards helping someone get off of drugs or receive critical mental health treatment. Instead, legislators in Frankfort, who reside in Louisville, want to direct how local governments all over the state address people who are homeless and strip us of any local decision-making.

At the same time, the bill will undoubtedly increase expenses to courts and correctional facilities and increase overcrowding in both systems, already at the breaking point. Many jail cells across the state are overcrowded. The most common current charges leading to arrest are drug charges. We can and are arresting such persons under the law today.

This bill will only lead to longer terms of imprisonment, sweep up people whose only crime is to be poor and un-housed, and drain our local coffers of the money needed to address our most pressing local problems. A bill to make us safer must go to root causes, not fly in the face of actually helping people deal with their problems.

If these issues concern you, please write or call (message line 1-800-372-7181) your House and Senate representatives asking them to oppose this portion of HB 5.

— Margaret Gardiner, Danville.