Homeless Advocates and Service Providers Criticize TN Bill that will Criminalize Homelessness

Nashville, TN (TN Tribune) – A bill is moving through the TN State Legislature that will further criminalize homelessness across the state of Tennessee. HB0978/SB1610 would make solicitation or camping “on the shoulder, berm, or right-of-way of a state or interstate highway or under a bridge or overpass” a class C misdemeanor offense punishable by a $50 fine and community service work. This bill would also broaden the language within the Equal Access to Public Property Act of 2012 so that people could be prosecuted for camping not just on property owned by the state, but on all public property across Tennessee.


The bill is sponsored by Rep. Ryan Williams (R-Cookeville) and Sen. Paul Bailey (R-Sparta). Last year, the Mayor of Cookeville tried to pass a citywide anti-panhandling bill, but it was defeated by advocates who spoke out against the bill. Williams and Bailey then took this effort to the state level. Last Wednesday, March 31, the bill passed in the House Criminal Justice Committee. It is currently being scheduled for a floor vote in the House and for discussion in the Senate Judiciary Committee.


As the COVID-19 pandemic continues and the eviction crisis looms over countless households across the state, advocates and service providers from Open Table Nashville, a homeless outreach nonprofit, and The Contributor, a nonprofit street paper, are speaking out and working to stop this bill.


“This bill will only make things worse for people who are already in desperate situations,” says Lindsey Krinks, co-founder of Open Table Nashville. “If our state legislators really want to help, they will put their efforts into ensuring that the poorest among us can access affordable housing and health care. Handcuffs, citations, and fines can’t heal. This bill does nothing to break the cycles of poverty.”


Tennessee is in the midst of an affordable housing crisis. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, nearly one third of all Tennessee renters qualify as Extremely Low Income, and there is currently a shortage of at least over 126,500 affordable homes for this income group across the state. Misdemeanor charges can also be used to deny people from employment opportunities and private housing units, even if they have received a Section 8 voucher.


“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,” says Cathy Jennings, director of The Contributor. “We have sought clarification from the bill’s sponsors. The only answer to homelessness is housing. Not fines. Fines just push people out of sight, further away from existing services, and make it harder for them to become housed.”


The Contributor has been providing individuals experiencing homelessness in the greater Nashville area with a means of becoming self-sufficient through selling newspapers as an independent contractor since 2007. Since its inception, The Contributor has been an invaluable asset to the city of Nashville and surrounding areas, providing the homeless with an alternative to panhandling that provides legitimate sources of income and avenues towards housing and employment.  70% of 6-month tenured participants work their way into housing.


Homeless advocates are turning their efforts to advocating with members of the TN Senate and Senate Judiciary Committee. If you want to learn more and help their efforts, please visit www.opentablenashville.org/no.