Housing for the People: Tennessee Law to Make Homelessness a Felony

The world is changing. Many American cities are experiencing a crackdown on homelessness. Individuals and families without a safe place to call home are being displaced with no place to go. People are losing their belongings. In Tennessee, it’s become extreme. On 1 July, a new law will pass making homelessness a felony “for a person to engage in camping on the shoulder, berm, or right of way of a state or interstate highway, under a bridge or overpass or within an underpass, of a state or interstate highway.” A felony for trying to exist, to sleep. We don’t have enough shelter space, much less housing, for all the people who are homeless. 

For those that don’t know, Tennessee is nicknamed the volunteer state. It’s a place I call home. We’ve been through a lot. In 2010, massive floods impacted my community in Nashville, along with many others. People suffered. Still, Tennesseans came together and helped each other. We didn’t wait for federal aid and the troops to be called in. We did what we had to do until aid could be dispatched. The TV was filled with images of trailers, cars, and even schools, floating away. Many people’s homes were destroyed, yet we still came together. Neighbors helping neighbors because that’s what we do in Tennessee. We volunteer to support one another. 

Just before we went into lock down in 2020 due to the COVID-19 outbreak Nashville and our region was devastated by a series of tornadoes. Neighborhoods laid in ruins. Streets were littered with the remnants of what was once a family memory. 

In 2021, tornadoes struck again. This time, during the height of the pandemic. Again, people’s homes were destroyed. Tennesseans rose above. We carried on. Helping strangers without thought of reward or five minutes of fame. Still, we came together, regardless of the hardship. Again, volunteering for one another. 

That’s why I am in a state of shock knowing our state has chosen to literally criminalize homelessness on public lands, a law that could potentially punish people with up to six years in prison. Not Tennessee, after all the hardship and loss of housing and witnessing so many people’s lives being destroyed. Honestly, it feels like someone ripping our collective hearts out. How could this be?

I’m housed in affordable housing in Nashville, but there is 2000+ that remain on the streets and call encampments home. There are thousands more around the state and tens of thousands more around the country living with no toilets, no running water, no electricity and no roof over their head. It’s unacceptable. It’s inhumane. 

We’ve thrown out our most vulnerable populations into the streets. There is no place left to go. More so, there are thousands more awaiting their fate. The eviction courts are overwhelmed. It’s heartbreaking to see this happening. Through all of this, people will be forced to hide their existence just to avoid arrests. 

If we can hold drug dealers accountable for the deaths they cause, why can’t we hold politicians to the same standard? It’s never been done, but maybe it’s time to start. Maybe it’s time to really hold politicians accountable for the lack of affordable housing. We have laws protecting our dogs from being left without food and water during inclement weather. Yet, our leaders choose to create laws making life worse for people. At what point do we stand up and say this isn’t working? At what point are we going to receive the human rights we deserve? 

There’s no question we have failed our neighbors, but I’m convinced it’s times like these we must continue to come together to help one another. We must all volunteer and use our voices for housing justice in Tennessee, in America and throughout the world. To be honest with you, I feel like shouting fire in a crowded theater right now. “Give our neighbors a safe place to call home!” It’s something we all deserve.

Vicky Batcher is a writer and housing advocate. She also sells The Contributor in Nashville, Tennessee. 

Housing for the People is a column produced by the International Network of Street Papers from people on the frontlines of the housing justice movement in America and beyond.

Courtesy of INSP North America / International Network of Street Papers