Earlier today the Tennessee State House Judiciary Committee voted to send House Bill 2638 to the full house for a vote. This bill is being presented in media as focusing on the Occupy Nashville protest encampment on the Legislative Plaza, and certainly the intent of the authors is to put an end to the encampment as quickly as possible. However what is less often mentioned is the unintended effects that this bill will have on the homeless and others throughout the state.
The bill is rather simple. It simply prohibits persons maintaining living quarters on publicly owned property. Originally, offenders would be guilty of a misdemeanor, but today in a fit of pique the sponsors amended the bill to increase the penalty to a Class A felony, with a year in jail and a $2,500 fine. That change is significant for a felony conviction causes one to lose voting rights in the state, and makes many folks ineligible to be hired in some cases. This isn’t a simply loitering conviction – this is a serious mark on one’s record.
Okay, I get it. The legislators are tired of the Occupy Nashville folks and want them gone, and they want to make sure that these folks recognize the seriousness of their actions. I won’t even try to argue for the validity of the encampment as I think far too much time and effort have been spent on the side issue of the right to remain while losing the original foci of political change.
But here is the ancillary effect. The law as written now makes it a Class A felony to camp out on ANY property deemed to be “public.” Obviously this has serious consequences for homeless folks, especially since the definition of “maintaining living quarters” and “public” is not clearly defined. Yet, I wonder if it wouldn’t also apply to a bunch of boy scouts who get the bright idea to camp out in a city or state park that doesn’t have a designated camping area? And the result is that we take folks who may be a nuisance and turn them into major criminals.
“What’s the problem with shutting down Tent Cities?” I can hear some ask. “Aren’t homeless encampments a public nuisance?”
Maybe. But the fact remains that the issue of homelessness requires a variety of options for addressing the needs of these folks on the edge. Yes, we have the Rescue Mission and the Campus for Human Development, but talk to a few homeless guys or girls and they will tell you that they often don’t feel safe in the mass shelters, that spaces for women are limited, and that there are minimal opportunities for husbands and wives (or boy and girlfriends to stay together). I’ve met homeless who aren’t able to access the system because the system doesn’t allow for pets and they are deeply connected to their dogs and cats. And there are many who struggle with mental illness who simply can’t make the traditional residence thing work. I would love to snap my fingers and wish homelessness away, but as Jesus told his disciples “the poor will always be with us,” and in a world where there are limited resources to address homelessness, encampments may need to be an option in some cases.
Yes, in many cases this is a nuisance, but is it a crime worthy of a Class A felony? Do we really want to start filling the jails with folks on the “camping out rap?” Don’t we have too many people in jail as it is, and aren’t there better ways to deal with this issue.
Honorable men and women of the Tennessee State Legislature, I know that you want your park back, and honestly I don’t blame you. But in the approach you are taking you are carpet-bombing something that requires a surgical strike – leaving behind many innocent casualties in your wake.
Don’t do it. There are a bunch of unintended consequences that will come from this legislation as written. Don’t turn a nuisance into a major criminal act.
Update – I am now reading different reports that suggest that they did not increase this to felony status but instead made it a Class A misdemeanor. Certainly if that is true it’s better news than what I heard earlier today, but I still fear that we are going down a slippery slope with this law.