JThe General Assembly this week passed a bill to further criminalize homelessness, but we let a senator’s confusing and odious comments distract us from the bill’s inhuman content.
As lawmakers debated Senate Bill 1610 on Wednesday, Republican Senator for Strawberry Plains Frank Niceley stood before the entire chamber and splashed a confusing story about Adolf Hitler that appeared to be either an expression of admiration for the Nazi dictator, an attempt to force a correlation between him and the homeless.
A soundbite of Niceley’s confusing statement was quickly seized upon by national media, and Tennessee’s reputation in the outside world has once again received one of the blows our lawmakers and officials seem to take great delight in firing.
Whatever his intention, the senator was wrong, but his comments, repugnant as they are, should not be the focus of discussion on this bill.
Now approved by both the House and Senate and headed to the governor for his signature, this law elevates the crime of sleeping — “camping” in legal parlance — on local public land to a criminal felony and makes sleeping or begging at highway exits and glossing over an offence. The law expands the reach of a law enacted two years ago that made it a crime to sleep without permission on state-owned land.
The new law will make homelessness illegal almost anywhere in the state, but it will do nothing to address the causes of homelessness.
Instead, the new wave of felony charges and convictions for the crime of sleeping illegally will strip the civil rights of thousands of people and make it even harder for them to get jobs and housing.
We at Johnson City have been down this road before.
Four years ago, under the guise that this was only part of a comprehensive plan to address the complex social problem of homelessness, city leaders went “camping” on the public property a local offence.
So far, all we’ve seen of this comprehensive plan are hundreds of notes written to people who can’t afford them, a worsened relationship between indigent people and the police who are sworn to protect and to serve and the homeless in our community pushed further into the shadows and away from the outreach programs that can help them.
The necessary act of sleeping should never be considered a crime, but to call it a crime is simply inhumane.
Instead of devoting resources to the criminal justice system to find, charge, and incarcerate people for sleeping in public, essentially punishing them for existing, we should dedicate our efforts to education and assistance to help people find and maintain reliable housing and employment.