LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Off Deering Road in Valley Station, Medora Elementary sits tucked in a corner near Dixie Highway. Just feet away from the school property was a homeless encampment with one woman living near the fence for months.
"When they announced school was coming back it was like 'okay.' I got phone calls, emails, texts, Facebook messaging, it was crazy. From faculty, from parents, everybody," Councilwoman Cindi Fowler, (D-14) said.
Fowler, who represents the district Medora Elementary is in, said she was aware of the encampment near the school property for over three months but had a difficult time addressing it.
"I don't want my grandson to be playing around in something that we don't know what that waste is," Fowler said. "It's just not a good situation to put a group of kids."
The individual living at the encampment had a wooden structure on the side of the fence closest to Dixie Highway. That property is owned by the state. But through a hole in the fence, Fowler said the individual spent time on the school property side, where trash and a waste bucket also sat. The city owns the property adjacent to Medora Elementary.
"I think it's the uncertainty for the parents and the uncertainty for the staff here at the school," Fowler said. "We feel like we're helpless in correcting the situation."
Less than a week after school resumed in-person for JCPS in March, the encampment was cleared and homeless outreach groups helped the individual connect with housing and services at Wellspring.
But Fowler said she wants to prevent it from happening elsewhere, which is why she filed an amendment to the city's homeless ordinance out of "frustration" with the process she went through in addressing the encampment near the school.
"Nobody else should have to go through this and I don't want anybody else to have to go through this because it's frustrating and it's hard," she said. "It's unfortunate that I had to file the amendment, I just felt like it was the right thing to do and it's just common sense."
Her proposed amendment, co-sponsored by District 25 Councilwoman Amy Holton Stewart (D), would allow homeless encampments adjacent to school or daycare property to be removed without the required 21-day notice. Apart from a few exceptions, the ordinance requires the city to notify homeless camps of a clear-out 21 days in advance, to allow homeless outreach groups to connect with those individuals.
"To me, that is a little excessive amount of time for something so close to a daycare center or a school," Fowler said.
Homeless outreach advocate and founder of HipHop Cares, Jeff Gill said he opposes Fowler's proposed ordinance.
"Let's not create ways to further criminalize our folks that are experiencing homelessness," Gill said. "I think that maybe at most it deserves a discussion but I don't think it deserves to be an amendment in the ordinance."
Gill said he believes the change would allow loopholes to the ordinance, creating a "dangerous" slippery slope.
"That's the last thing we need. We're looking for more protection not loopholes," he said. "Are we just going to stop at schools and daycare centers? Or next are we talking about churches? And then are we talking about nursing homes...like where does it stop?"
Gill said he wants outreach groups and more individuals affected by ordinances changes involved in the discussions, to improve communication and include their say. But the issue extends beyond the proposed ordinance, according to Gill.
"Adding in more things that say 'you can't be here' or 'not in my backyard,' I don't think that's a healthy approach and I don't think that it's a productive approach," Gill said. "We need more spaces that people can go to. So if we have someone camping on school property, we have another space we can offer them."
"I really hope we think long and hard before we change an ordinance that has been working," Councilman Bill Hollander, (D-9) said.
Hollander crafted the city's homeless ordinance and agrees with Gill that Fowler's proposed amendment causes "concern." Hollander, Gill and Fowler all said they don't believe homeless camps near schools or daycares is currently a widespread issue.
While he said he understands the concerns in the situation, Hollander doesn't believe the original ordinance needs to be amended for one case, involving one individual.
"The 21-day notice has worked very well throughout the community for several years now and I don't see any reason to change it based on one case of one individual where I think the 21-day notice actually worked," Hollander said.
Hollander said the 21-day notice was provided to the encampment near Medora Elementary and within one week, the individual cleared out their belongings and got connected with resources at Wellspring. Hollander said the 21-day notice allowed her to get "necessary" help.
"The 21- day provision has been misunderstood by some people as being designed to just let people to stay for 21 days. That's not the point, that's never been the point and that's not how it works," Hollander said. "The whole point of the 21-day notice was to get services to people so we could get them into better situations and we could stop this cycle of moving people continuously."
Fowler said she believes the city's homeless ordinance has done "a lot of good," she still wants to see more changes.
"What we've been doing for 20 years is not getting things done for the people that need the help," she said. "I really hope we as a city can go forward and do something meaningful for the houseless in our community because it's way overdue and we have been just kind of kicking the can down the road for a long time."
Fowler said she knows there will be concerns with her proposed amendment, but believes it's "proactive" in addressing homeless encampments.
"I'm not anti-homeless," she said. "It's emotional. I'm not heartless. I feel for the woman. But I also have to listen to my constituents and their concerns, so it's just hard."
Metro Council is expected to discuss the possible change in public safety committee in two weeks.