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Homelessness is not a crime: Nashville street paper vendors on Tennessee anti-homelessness bill

Nashville street paper The Contributor has been exploring Tennessee Senate Bill 1610, legislation which makes camping or sleeping alongside a state or interstate highway a crime. The bill also targets homeless encampments and aims to expand the ‘Equal Access to Public Property Act of 2012’ by adding local government lands to the list of places where camping is a felony. The bill has since passed into law without the signature of Tennessee Governor Bill Lee.

In a feature outlining the potential court challenges to the bill, Contributor editor Amanda Haggard writes that “like the latest bill out of the state legislature, most camping bans are often written to cover a broad range of activities, including merely sleeping outside”. Referring to a 2022 study by the National Homelessness Law Center, she writes: “‘Despite a lack of affordable housing and shelter space, governments have chosen to threaten, arrest, and ticket homeless persons for performing life-sustaining activities — such as sleeping or sitting down — in outdoor public space,’ the executive summary from the study reads. 60 per cent of cases in the study were able to successfully fight the bans — at the time of the report, only four US states had statewide camping bans, but 15 had laws restricting camping in certain public areas. ‘In 2019, 72 per cent of our 187 surveyed cities had at least one law restricting camping in public,’ the study reads. Suits against bans varied from First Amendment challenges, which, of course, hold that sleeping and tents can be expression protected under free speech, as well as exemptions for religious use by churches using their land to house people experiencing homelessness.”

She goes on: “‘Because people experiencing homelessness are not on the street by choice but because they lack choices, criminal and civil punishment serves no constructive purpose,’ the study says. “Instead, criminalizing homelessness creates acute harm and wastes precious public resources on policies that do not work to reduce homelessness. Indeed, arrests, unaffordable tickets, and displacement from public space for doing what any human being must do to survive can make homelessness more difficult to escape.’

The Contributor works with individuals and communities who will be affected by the legislation, many of who sell the street paper. Two vendors – Paul A. and Vicky B. – express their personal reaction to the way the state of Tennessee is approaching the homelessness issue.

Local Activists put up a sign in protest of the “No Trespassing” sign in front of the Tennessee State Capitol. It reads, “Sleeping is Not a Crime.” Photo by Alvine.

A great injustice

By Paul A., Contributor vendor

If they can earmark $550 million for a sports stadium, why can’t they do the same for homeless people?

I feel that the state is doing a great injustice to these people. Because I was out there. I was lucky enough to get in [to housing], because I wanted to get in, but these legislators don’t think about anybody but themselves and how much money the state can make off what they’re doing. I feel that every one of them should be recalled. They voted for this. The governor should be recalled for even suggesting it. There’s enough money with all of these rich people – they could have contributed that much. They should contribute an equal amount to help the homeless people who want to get off the streets, actually get off the streets. We have enough vacant buildings, if they are structurally sound enough, to refurb and make into apartments.

With that in mind, and them wanting to shut us down because we’re telling the truth, there’s something wrong with that picture. We need a campaign to get all of these people out of office and get people in there that are going to do something for homeless people instead of thinking about themselves and how much money they can get from special interests.

It shouldn’t be a felony to sleep outside. They need to come up with a solution where the ones who want to stay outside, that have been outside for several years that can’t get into or don’t want to go into housing, (because they couldn’t acclimate, or don’t feel like they could hold onto it) can find a place for them to go and be that’s not in a floodplain.

And if we come up with a solution like pallet houses, they shouldn’t be in a floodplain either. Let’s do everything we can to help people get off the streets. From people I talk to, they are telling me that the shelters are overflowing. There’s not enough shelter space for them.

It makes me feel very upset and very angry. Because they are doing everything to bring money in. They could put $500 million into building affordable housing for the ones who want to get off the streets. I worry a lot about women and kids. Because they shouldn’t be subject to this. We should be able to get them into housing quicker than they’re doing. There’s too much red tape, and it needs to be cut.

In an effort to further criminalize homelessness, Tennessee Legislatures passed a bill which makes camping or sleeping alongside a state or interstate highway a felony. This No Tresspassing sign in front of the State Capitol was put up after the Occupy Protests in 2010. Photo by Alvine.

The world is watching

By Vicky B., Contributor Vendor

The world is watching the war in Ukraine unfold graphically on our TVs, cellphones and tablets. The world is watching homeless people lose all their possessions over YouTube, Twitter and Instagram in LA. City workers putting everything in the trash trucks saying: “We’re only doing our job.” Cities are cleaning up homelessness everywhere out there, and it’s devastating to watch it on InvisiblePeople.TV. There’s a truly heart-wrenching interview with the ones losing their homes as the city makes way for opening day in the ballpark. The ballpark.

The world is watching Tennessee that just passed a bill that makes camping on state property a felony. A felony for trying to survive. There aren’t enough shelter beds for the estimated number of homeless people in Nashville. The city wants to attract a Super Bowl, so they’ll need a bigger stadium costing billions.

The world is watching the US give billions to Ukraine yet they allow their poorest to suffer the most.

No one is watching what homeless people have to do while they wait for someone to die in affordable housing so they can be next on the waitlist. Most see homeless people as beggars, lazy, drunks and addicts. Most homeless people have jobs, sometimes two, but rents are so high and show no signs of decreasing anytime soon.

No one sees the heart ripping anger I feel that more isn’t being done. A lot more action and a little less talking is what’s needed. You’ve heard it said hundreds of times: affordable housing ends homelessness.

Courtesy of The Contributor / International Network of Street Papers