Tennessee lawmakers’ response to homelessness is absurd

Published 11:48 am Tuesday, April 12, 2022

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With Senate Bill 1610, the only way to legally exist as a human being would be to keep moving and never stop. Being homeless becomes a crime.
I am not only stunned but sad. On March 29, The Tennessean reported that our state legislature is resurrecting a proposed bill that will criminalize homelessness in Tennessee. This would be laughable and absurd if it weren’t so heartless.
Senate Bill (SB) 1610 would make it a crime to camp or solicit money on public property. Some offenses would be deemed felonies, others would be deemed misdemeanors. All would punish people as criminals for having nowhere to lay their heads at night.
The absurdity of this bill resides in our understanding of our right to exist. If a person has no legal access to private property and becomes a criminal for occupying public property, then what is left? Nothing.
Nothing means that they have no place left on this earth. No place to rest, to stop or to just exist. With the passage of this bill, the only way to legally exist as a human being would be to keep moving and never stop.
The fact that this bill challenges the fundamental right to exist means that it affects all of us — not just the homeless.
Make no mistake. Anyone can fall on hard times and be unable to pay their bills. Anyone can find themselves in an abusive relationship with nowhere to escape to but the streets.
Anyone can wind up in the throes of mental illness that destabilizes their life and their security. More importantly, when we legalize the dehumanization of others, we dehumanize ourselves.
When we allow our legislators to turn those who are society’s most beaten down into criminals, we reject the very thing that gives us the right to call ourselves civilized: our capacity for compassion, for justice rooted in love for others rather than hate.
Are we willing to let our legislature dehumanize us? Creating crimes in order to punish the least fortunate rather than protect them. If not, and I hope not, then how do we respond to this heartlessness?
First of all, let’s demand that the architects of this heinous bill pull it immediately. Then we must demand that our legislators take seriously the important job of solving our crisis of homelessness and inequity.
Let’s rally together as a compassionate city and state to enact legislation that provides living wages, offers housing options that are truly affordable and guarantees basic physical and mental health care for everyone. These services are not giveaways. Quite the opposite. They are the hallmarks of a strong and loving community.
SB 1610 expands the Equal Access to Property Act of 2012 to not only make camping on state-owned land a felony, but to give local governments the ability to impound and throw away the “camping equipment” used by the so-called felons — which are the only earthly possessions of those who are homeless. It is the lowest of legislative lows.
Please stand with me in refusing to let it stand. We are better than this. We are good people. We believe everyone has a right to stop moving at the end of the day, lay down their heads and sleep somewhere in peace.
We believe our fellow human beings are made in God’s image and if we believe these things, then we cannot let our own government go against our beliefs.
(Father Charles Strobel is the founding director of Room In The Inn, which offers a continuum of care for those who call the streets of Nashville home. This article is reprinted from the Nashville Tennessean)

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