NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Nestled in downtown Nashville sits Room in the Inn, a shelter helping those experiencing homelessness.
The staff there says they love their jobs. But in July, it got a little more chaotic. The Tennessee legislature passed a law this year making it a felony to camp on public property. It came after an already hard set of years with COVID-19.
“Encampments became very visible in that time,” Room in the Inn executive director, Rachel Hester, said. “For this law to be put into place, it seems like it was built out of frustration.”
📧 Have breaking come to you: Subscribe to News 2 email alerts →
Hester heads up the shelter. She says she doesn’t want to get in a fight with politicians or her peers, but she can’t deny this law has been tough.
“Now, it’s creating friction there instead of, we were all trying to help,” Hester said. “Now, it’s creating a division, even in your own neighborhood.”
Rep. Mark White (R-Memphis) co-sponsored the law when it was a bill.
WKRN News 2 asked, “What do you say to people who say, ‘You’re targeting a group of people who can’t help or support themselves?’”
“If we allow part of our society just to do what they want to – campout, anywhere, where there’s not sanitation conditions, there’s not public restrooms and things, then I think we’re doing our communities [a disservice],” White said. “I’m concerned about the spread of social diseases and sanitation.”
News 2 followed up with, “Where are homeless people supposed to go now?”
“There are union missions and other things we set up,” White said. “If there’s not, we need to seriously look at that because that is a serious issue right now.”
It’s a debate that divided the legislature, even amongst Republicans themselves. Sen. Mark Pody (R-Lebanon) was one of several who voted against the bill.
“If they’re homeless, they’re going to be living somewhere, and if they can’t do it on public property, they have to go on private property,” Pody said. “That’s just switching the problem from one situation to another.”
The law went into effect without addressing the affordable housing crisis or a place for unhoused people to go. It’ll be up to local municipalities to make those decisions, in addition to deciding whether to enforce the law at all.
“We’ve heard that it could be enforced sporadically, and I don’t agree with that kind of enforcement with any bill,” Pody said. “When we pass a bill, it’s got to be enforced equally across the state and across whoever’s enforcing it.”
It’s nerve-racking for the actual people affected. At any minute, local governments could decide to enforce the law.
“It just seemed like all we were doing was telling people they weren’t welcome here,” Hester said. “That’s not who Nashville has been, that’s not who Tennessee has been.”
Furthermore, Hester acknowledged that the recidivism rate, or the rate at which people become re-incarcerated, is about 46% here in Tennessee.
“Every time, there’s an unintentional consequence of a new felony or some other thing like that. It adds another barrier for us to move them out of homelessness,” she said. “If you try one time, two times, three times to move out of homelessness, and there keeps being, someone keeps putting a barrier in front of you, eventually you’re going to quit trying.”
For what it’s worth, Gov. Bill Lee (R-Tennessee) said he disagreed with the legislation, saying back when it passed State Congress, “I do think there’s a better way.”
However, he did not veto it, which allowed the bill to become law.