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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Tents and other structures fill a piece of property beside the railroad track off of East 11th Street in Chattanooga in March.

Words at first seemed to fail us when we read in Tuesday's paper that the Tennessee General Assembly took a final vote Monday to criminalize homelessness. The bill is now on its way to Gov. Bill Lee's desk for his signature.

The Republican bill makes homeless people in Tennessee who camp or sleep in parks or on other public property subject to criminal felony charges while other homeless people camping around highways could face misdemeanors.

This heartless bill made headlines last week — even before it passed — when Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, embarrassed our state again, backing this atrocious legislation with what he called a "history lesson on homelessness" fashioned in a somewhat romanticized story about Adolf Hitler.

"[In] 1910, Hitler decided to live on the streets for a while. So for two years, Hitler lived on the streets and practiced his oratory and his body language and how to connect with the masses and then went on to lead a life that got him in the history books.

"So a lot of these people, it's not a dead-end," Niceley added. "They can come out of this, these homeless camps and have a productive life — or in Hitler's case a very unproductive life. I support this bill."

No wonder Tennessee schools have a hard time teaching history. Or anything else. The idea that this bill would give homeless people a boot-strap up out of homelessness by way of prison and help them turn their lives around like the Nazi-era Hitler who went on to order the imprisonment and deaths of millions of Jews and others is simply mind boggling.

What's more, Hitler didn't "decide" to live on the streets to "practice his oratory." After failing to gain admission to the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, he used up his savings and ended up sleeping on park benches and begging for money. He lived in a hostel for the homeless in Vienna between 1910 and 1913. Historians have noted that Hitler described this period of homelessness as the "harshest and saddest" time of his life.

Niceley would seem to be the poster child for why politicians should have two-year term limits. It's not just that they are cruel. They also aren't thinking through what they're doing.

They think the answer to homelessness (estimated in January 2020 as numbering about 7,256 people in Tennessee on any given day) is to house the homeless in our jails and prisons?

They think the answer is to further hinder the homeless from getting support to help them find work with which they might afford rent or cars or at least bus fare so they can keep jobs?

All but one of our local state lawmakers voted for this: Sens. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, Bo Watson, R-Hixson, and Reps. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, Esther Helton, R-East Ridge, and Greg Vital, R-Harrison.

Only Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, opposed it, calling it an overreach in trying to deal with a problem that he doesn't see as extreme or out of control. He questions whether it isn't actually aimed at protests.

But Rev. Charles Strobel, founding director of Nashville's homeless shelter Room at the Inn, sees it as yet another hurdle to people forced onto the streets by poverty and mental illness. He put it this way in a opinion piece published last week in the Nashville Tennessean:

"[This bill] would punish people as criminals for having nowhere to lay their heads at night," Strobel wrote. "The absurdity of this bill resides in our understanding of our right to exist. If a person has no legal access to private property and becomes a criminal for occupying public property, then what is left? Nothing."

Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, had another take on the legislation, and particularly on Niceley's ridiculous "history lesson," which she shared in a video on Twitter. (By Tuesday afternoon it had been viewed 2.1 million times.)

"Not a single day passes without TN GOP embarrassing the hell out of our state," she posted. "I'm going to have to apologize to the universe for this guy."

The bill doesn't apply only to state public property, but to local jurisdictions' public property as well, meaning it may hinder Chattanooga officials who are working to establish a "sanctioned and supervised" camping area for the homeless on city property near the Chattanooga Community Kitchen.

Ellis Smith, a spokesperson for Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly, told the paper on Monday that city officials will "evaluate our options" if the legislation becomes law.

Sen. Paul Bailey, R-Cookeville, last week said he doesn't see the bill as criminalizing homelessness, and he told lawmakers it would be up to local authorities to decide whether to enforce the law.

If that's the case, it will be unusual. Tennessee, after all, is the state that has idiotically banned local governments from prohibiting guns in specified public places like parks and ball fields, prohibited police departments from destroying confiscated weapons and forbade local counties and cities from requiring masks to prevent COVID-19's spread.

It's likely to get worse before it gets better. Watch this space.

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