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Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Tents line the street and block the sidewalks along East 11th Street on Wednesday, March 30, 2022.

NASHVILLE — Homeless people in Tennessee who camp or sleep in parks or on other public property could be subject to criminal felony charges while others camping around highways could face misdemeanors under a Republican-backed bill that's stirred up national headlines.

Part of the controversy stems from a GOP senator who last week said during Senate floor debate the measure could encourage the homeless to turn their lives around, going on to cite as an example Nazi-era leader Adolf Hitler as someone who once was homeless.

"I haven't given y'all a history lesson in a while and I want to give you a little history lesson on homelessness," Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, told colleagues Thursday as House Bill 978 came to the floor. "[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."

Niceley's remarks made national news. Hitler was responsible for the deaths of millions in death camps during World War II with estimates of 6 million Jews and about 5 million non-Jews dying, including Roma, Jehovah's Witnesses, gay men and people with disabilities.

The House bill, which was amended by the Senate, came back to the lower chamber Monday evening where members voted 57-28 to accept the Senate version, the final vote on the matter. Republican Gov. Bill Lee has yet to say whether he will sign the measure.

In a recent opinion article in the Nashville Tennessean, the Rev. Charles Strobel, founding director of Nashville's homeless shelter Room at the Inn, criticized the bill.

"Senate Bill 1610 would make it a crime to camp or solicit money on public property," Strobel wrote. "Some offenses would be deemed felonies, others would be deemed misdemeanors. All would punish people as criminals for having nowhere to lay their heads at night. 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."

Sen. Paul Bailey, R-Cookeville, told colleagues last week it's up to local authorities to decide whether to enforce the law, some provisions of which were passed in 2012. He said the bill does not criminalize homelessness.

The bill adds local public property to the existing felony penalties that are possible for camping on state property if the property isn't designated for camping. It would be a Class E felony, punishable by up to six years in prison and a $3,000 fine. GOP lawmakers increased the penalties for camping on state property from a Class A misdemeanor to a felony in 2020 amid days of protests over social justice issues where demonstrators camped on adjacent Legislative Plaza.

Felony convictions in Tennessee result in the revocation of an individual's right to vote.

Bailey said he didn't know if there had ever been any legal challenges to the original 2012 law.

"This just extends it to [local] public property," he told senators, noting the decision on whether it's enforced or not is up to local authorities.

Camping along a state highway would be a Class C misdemeanor punishable by a $50 fine and 20-40 hours of community service upon conviction, Bailey said. A first offense would carry a warning. Bailey said any subsequent offenses would be up to the local district attorney.

"It just breaks my heart that we're criminalizing people who don't have anywhere else to go," said Sen. Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville, as she spoke out against the bill during last week's debate. "And if you take and incarcerate their parents, then I think that only multiplies the issue of taking their parents away from these children, simply because they are poor."

"As a Christian," Gilmore said, "I feel like this hurts our neighbors most in need. We are tasked in the Bible with defending the right of the poor. So for these reasons I will not be voting for the bill."

Among those voting for the Senate bill were Sens. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, and Bo Watson, R-Hixson.

Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, said the legislation seems like an overreach in trying to deal with a problem. He said he doesn't see where the situation is extreme or out of control.

"And it lends itself to being used for people who are protesting or something," Hakeem said.

As for Niceley's comments, Hakeem said, "Sen. Niceley may have been well intended, but I question whether he hit the mark on what he is trying to accomplish. It came close to being very offensive."

Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, posted Niceley's remarks to Twitter last week.

"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."

 

In Hamilton County

Homelessness also came up during last week's WTCI-hosted Hamilton County mayoral debate featuring two of the three GOP candidates running to succeed Republican Jim Coppinger, the current mayor.

"What I realized is that there are different groups of people," County Commission Chairwoman Sabrena Smedley said. "We need to identify who's who. Who are those that are down on their luck, that really need help and need a hand up, rather than a taxpayer handout."

She said those who are mentally ill need to be identified and helped. But she said there's also a "criminal population down there" who need to be "locked up and sent back where they came from."

Smedley also said, "I've met with our EMS department, and they have told me those folks are being bused in. It's where the Greyhound bus stops. We need to figure out who doesn't belong and send them back to where they came from. These other mayors, I know there's one in South Carolina, I'm being told, he's giving them one-way vouchers, saying go to Chattanooga, you can get the resources you need. We do not need to be a haven for the homeless."

The Times Free Press followed up on Smedley's comments Monday with Hamilton County communications manager Mike Dunne.

"We are unaware of any busing of the homeless," Dunne said in an email. "We have also checked with the EMS director and he is also unaware of any homeless busing."

Ellis Smith, a spokesperson for Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly, said in an email to the Times Free Press on Monday that in the city's surveys of encampments over the years, officials found that the "vast majority of residents" — more than 80% — previously resided in Hamilton County but lost their home because they could no longer afford it. He said that was typically due to "skyrocketing rent and stagnant wages.

"In fact, the median home price in Chattanooga topped $300,000 last month, up 18.5% from a year ago, and is rising faster than the national average," Smith said in the email.

Smith said city officials will "evaluate our options" if the legislation becomes law.

"But our main focus is on stimulating the supply of housing that Chattanoogans can afford through zoning reform efforts, [smaller accessory dwelling unit] legislation, and the mayor's $100 million initiative to create new homes, among other initiatives," he said.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

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