Previously defeated bill to criminalize homelessness is back in the Senate

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Posted at 5:32 PM, Mar 28, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-29 08:59:23-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — In April 2021, a bill to impose heftier criminal charges for homelessness was defeated in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Now, the bill is making a return.

SB1610 would create a Class C misdemeanor offense, punishable by a $50 fine or community service work, for solicitation along a controlled-access highway or entrance or exit ramp. It would also make it illegal to camp on any public property in the state.

The bill's sponsors are Rep. Ryan Williams (R-Cookeville) and Sen. Paul Bailey (R-Sparta). The renewed interest in SB1610 was inspired by a proposed citywide anti-panhandling bill in Cookeville that failed.

Open Table Nashville, a homeless outreach nonprofit, and The Contributor, a nonprofit street paper, are two of the most outspoken opponents of SB1610.

“This bill will only make things worse for people who are already in desperate situations,” said Lindsey Krinks, cofounder of Open Table Nashville.

Nearly one third of all Tennessee renters qualify as Extremely Low Income, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. The challenges of this income status are exacerbated by the shortage of affordable homes across the state.

If camping becomes legally punishable on all public property, any homeless person unable to find a nonpublic place to sleep would be eligible to receive a misdemeanor. And misdemeanor charges can be used to deny employment opportunities or private housing units, even with a Section 8 voucher.

Another challenge posed to the homeless community is a removal of a form of legitimate income.

The Contributor is an independently contracted business which has allowed homeless people to earn income selling newspapers since 2007. According to the paper's numbers, 70% of 6-month tenured participants work their way into housing.

“We are concerned that making solicitation on public roadways a misdemeanor could decimate the incomes of some Contributor vendors who have worked hard to build their business and work their way into housing,” said Cathy Jennings, director of The Contributor.

A vote on SB1610 will take place in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.