NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – Tennessee lawmakers have cleared a bill to Governor Bill Lee‘s desk that would criminalize the homeless who camp on public grounds. Those opposing the bill say it does nothing to address the root of homelessness, the lack of affordable housing.
Many without homes are the voices rarely heard.
“Just because he’s homeless that doesn’t mean he’s not somebody’s son, somebody’s brother, somebody’s father, somebody’s grandfather, somebody’s cousin — just because he’s homeless doesn’t mean that he’s not a human,” said Morgan Wilson, who was recently housed.
If Governor Lee signs new legislation, the homeless would become a target under the law.
“It’s really going to inhibit our folks who are homeless and recently housed from obtaining employment,” said Lisa Wysocky, Executive Director of Colby’s Army.
Each Tuesday volunteers from Colby’s Army hand out some essentials like clothes and food to those camping at Brookmeade Park in West Nashville.
“We don’t necessarily have a homeless problem, we have a low-income housing problem,” Wysocky said.
HB 978 would create a class ‘C’ misdemeanor offense if a person camps on the shoulder, right-of-way, bridge, overpass, or underpass of a state or interstate highway. Offenders are subject to a $50 fine and community service.
“That’s ridiculous — homeless people can’t afford to live as it is,” Wilson said.
She added, that while she’s now housed, the communities she comes from are under attack, and the new law, if enforced, could upend lives.
“A misdemeanor is an arrestable offense so while you’re in jail, what’s going to happen is your stuff, everything that you have — your belongings, is going to get gone through by the people around, thrown away by the government, and then when you come out you have absolutely nothing,” Wilson said.
Representative John Ray Clemmons (D-Nashville) said the bill is trying to create a bigger divide between the ‘haves and the have nots’.
“So with this law, ultimately, will do criminalization whether it’s a misdemeanor for encamping on the side of the roadway or a felony for camping on public property, you’re creating this vicious cycle whereby individuals will have no way to dig themselves out of a hole,” Clemmons said.
Representative Clemmons adds that lawmakers focused on providing funding for mental health care and drug rehabilitating services and housing.