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We agree: Kentucky should not replicate California’s housing policies. | Opinion

We agree. Kentucky is indeed at a turning point in its housing and homeless policy. We have a shortage of 89,000 homes available and affordable to extremely low-income residents, which in turn left 4,700 Kentuckians with no place to stay but outside or in shelter in 2023. As Kentuckians, we can work together to solve our housing crisis — but not through generic policies parachuted into Kentucky from politicized national organizations that know nothing of our people other than how to poll them.

We agree. Our communities of all shapes and sizes are feeling the pressure and looking to experts for policy guidance and to the state legislature for real solutions–which requires understanding the real problem. In our cities, there are not enough shelter beds for everyone who is sleeping outdoors. In some of Lexington’s neighboring counties, there are ZERO shelters. No one, least of all the Homeless and Housing Coalition of Kentucky (HHCK) and our members across the commonwealth, wants anyone to be forced into living on the streets or in a parking garage or in a tent in Letcher County. But criminalizing people who have nowhere else to go does not change this reality, and it certainly isn’t compassionate. To that end, HHCK advocates for funding and policies, such as $200 million in the state budget, that will address the housing supply shortage and increase access and minimize barriers to shelter, rental housing, and homeownership. The anti-homeless sections of HB 5 will do nothing to solve the broken housing market and instead will create additional barriers in the form of a criminal record, jail time, and fines for people who already can’t afford to rent an apartment.

We agree. As local elected officials search for solutions, Houston, Texas, does emerge as a model for reducing homelessness. But that’s not because Houston criminalizes people without shelter beds. Rather, it’s due to strategic coordination between federal, state, and local governments while housing construction has increased.

We agree. Housing and behavioral health intersect. But we know that because of studies of Kentuckians experiencing homelessness – not because of a public opinion poll measuring hyperbolic – and inaccurate – perceptions sought to support sound-bite fixes. Not all people with substance use disorder or mental illness are homeless, and not all people who are unsheltered suffer from the same. Kentucky’s point in time count data indicates that 37% of people experiencing homelessness have a co-occurring issue. This percentage indicates that housing plus services is an important policy tool, not that everyone who is sleeping outside should go to rehab. That’s why HHCK has advocated with the Kentucky Mental Health Coalition over the last four years for passage and implementation of 2022’s Senate Joint Resolution 72, championed by former Senator Ralph Alvarado (R-Winchester), which is now law. We continue to work with state government to ensure Kentuckians receive housing with appropriate services.

While all of this debate happens during Kentucky’s legislative session, the Supreme Court of the United States is set to hear Grants Pass v. Johnson in April: “[a]t its core, this case will decide whether cities are allowed to punish people for things like sleeping outside with a pillow or blanket, even when there are no safe shelter options.” The reason this case is even being heard is due in part to the efforts of California Governor Gavin Newsom and San Francisco Mayor London Breed, while their legislature also considers legislation to criminalize homelessness amid double-digit rent increases, which directly cause increased homelessness.

We agree. We do not want Kentucky to become California. That is precisely why we must agree that criminalizing homelessness has no place here and instead work collaboratively to address the housing crisis so that no Kentuckian has to experience homelessness.

Adrienne Bush is the executive director of the Homeless and Housing Coalition of Kentucky and has chosen to make Kentucky home for over twenty years.