Last week, the Tennessee state Senate passed SB1610, which creates more severe penalties for “illegally camping.” That is a euphemism for being homeless or unhoused. Before the 22-10 vote in favor of the bill, Republican state Sen. Frank Nicely stood up to make a speech about how homeless folks could find inspiration in famed Vienna men’s shelter occupant Adolf Hitler. That last statement concerning Mr. Nicely is not hyperbole: It is, in fact, what he said.
Don’t believe me? Here are his words, verbatim: “Nineteen and ten, Hitler decided to live on the streets. So for two years Hitler lived on the streets and practiced his oratory and his body language and how to connect with the masses. And then went on to lead a life that got him in the history books. So, a lot of these people it’s not a dead end. They can come out of these homeless camps and have a productive life, or in Hitler’s case a very unproductive life.”
On Monday, the Tennessee House passed the bill in a 57-28 vote.
Opponents of the bill argue that by creating larger fines and more serious charges for being homeless, Tennessee is making it clear that the resources they are willing to spend to help its citizens will only be prison-based. To explain this the way I explain it to my 6-year-old: Asking someone with no money for money because they have no money, and then threatening them with jail time if they don’t come up with the money they don’t have, and then at the same time not helping them get to a place where they could maybe make some money, is insane.
My 6-year-old gets it.
The bill, co-sponsored by state Rep. Tim Hicks, makes camping along a controlled-access highway, entrance, or exit ramp punishable by “either a $50 fine and a sentence to 20-40 hours of community service work, or a sentence of 20-40 hours of litter removal.” Hicks calls this a “safety issue.” In fact, Hicks is excited for this bill to help the homeless by increasing unhoused folks’ interactions with law enforcement.
“This bill allows people, law enforcement to be able to go up to someone and tell them that they’re breaking the law,” Hicks said. “The first time will be a warning, tell them that they’re breaking the law — they can’t camp here — and offer them help. That is exactly what we’re trying to do with this bill.
“If we sit on our hands and do nothing about this issue and wait on the homeless to take care of themselves, it’s going to continue to get worse. This is a tool that our cities and counties can do in order to get these folks help.”
Hicks’ addition to the bill and his unwillingness to talk about the rest of the bill sort of give away his real position. The law makes camping or sleeping outside a Class E felony. A Class E felony “can result in a maximum prison term of six years and/or a fine not exceeding $3,000.” In many states, a felony conviction means the loss of one’s right to vote.
Church leaders and other people who have actually been trying to increase interactions with homeless citizens in the hopes of helping them have called the bill illogical. Burt Rosen, CEO of Knox Area Rescue Ministries, told WBIR that if your goal is to help people, criminalizing the issues they have doesn’t ameliorate anything. “The goal is really for them to get help, and we’re not going to accomplish a lot by putting someone behind bars.”
State Sen. Jeff Yarbo, who voted against the legislation, explained how dubious this law truly is, as GOP officials keep pretending that the law isn’t really the law. “Now I don’t anticipate anyone in the legislature wants to apply that to people enjoying their weekend. When we pass a law we don’t intend to have forced as written, it creates a really broad level of discretion, where local governments can target disfavored populations.”
Republican state Sen. Paul Bailey, the Senate bill sponsor, gave arguably one the most cynical statements in the history of the world when it was pointed out to him that a lot of churches and religious institutions that actually deal with helping people without homes are against his inhumane bill. “I don’t have the answer for homelessness. Those that oppose this legislation, they don’t have all the answers for homelessness. Those that support this legislation, they don’t have all of the answers for homelessness.”
That’s a hypocritical lie. For proof, state Sen. Paul Bailey need only look to 2018, when he and his GOP brethren voted to ban cities like Nashville from using zoning to “build or preserve affordable housing.” This was the conservative response to the increasing affordable housing crisis that Tennessee and the entire country are facing.
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