Voices: Tennessee plans to criminalize homelessness. This is a Republican-led class war

·6-min read
 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Kentucky has its old home. Alabama, its sweet home. Tennessee has Rocky Top, but there is no house there – and for good reason. Houses in Tennessee are increasingly hard to come by.

On any given day there are more than 7,000 adults experiencing homelessness in Tennessee alone, according to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness. That number rises to nearly 20,000 when you consider homeless students. That was in January 2020. The pandemic and rising housing prices have no doubt exacerbated this figure.

Yet rather than try to help the people of the Volunteer State navigate this housing crisis, this week Tennessee Republicans passed a law which criminalizes homelessness. If signed by Governor Lee – quelle surprise, also a Republican – HB978 would criminalize persons camping on the shoulder of the road or under a bridge, road, or overpass. This follows a 2012 law which already made illegal camping on public property.

It’s despicable. HB978 is a mean-spirited attack on the most vulnerable Tennesseans. It is also yet another sign that the GOP, while talking a big populist game, truly despises the poor and working class.

First, let’s be clear what this law is meant to do. As mentioned, it builds on a 2012 law which made it illegal to camp on public property. Tennessee Republicans passed that law following the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests which saw demonstrators camp out and literally occupy public spaces such as parks and monuments. Following the 2020 protests against the murder of George Floyd, Tennessee Republicans again began criminalizing acts of protest, and this law can be viewed as part of that existing clampdown on civil liberties.

Yet there is another important and more obvious context, one which demands our attention and some sort of explanation from the party which claims to be on the side of ordinary Americans. All over the country, housing prices are skyrocketing to dangerous historic highs. Prices are rising so fast that Yahoo! Finance recently advised readers waiting just three months to buy could raise their costs as much as 20 percent. A survey from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that people’s confidence that they will one day end up on the housing ladder is at a record low. Meanwhile, rent prices in the United States have reached record highs, with a 17 percent increase on this time last year. From sea to shining sea, it is increasingly difficult to find a home – let alone afford to stay in one.

In Tennessee, the situation is even worse. Housing prices in Nashville alone have gone up more than 20 percent over the course of the previous year, making it one of the most overpriced housing markets in the country. In Memphis, investors are buying up single family homes and turning them into rental properties – but the poorest can’t afford to rent them. The city saw a nearly 30 percent increase in rental prices over the past year, the fifth highest in the nation. This is on top of a poverty rate of 13.6 percent — one of the highest in the nation.

These are not just abstract numbers. They represent real people suffering real trauma. They even come with a body count; in 2017, more than 100 people experiencing homelessness died in Nashville alone. The pandemic and its economic effects, rising inflation, and a dearth of affordable housing has exacerbated this problem, and it is not unreasonable to believe there could be even more deaths of unhoused persons this year.

Clearly, then, our elected officials ought to be helping Tennesseans into homes – not criminalizing them because they don’t have one. Instead, they’re making life easier for landlords while making it more difficult and costly for tenants to fight eviction. A law signed by Governor Lee earlier this month requires tenants to come up with twelve months’ rent in order to even appeal an eviction.

Couple the economic hardships folks are already facing with the drastic rise in rental prices over the past two years and we have a most unjust situation, one that is nothing short of a declaration of class war on the poor. Republicans have effectively prevented Tennesseans from even having a fair hearing in a court of law unless they can pay their landlord. The patent unfairness of this should be obvious to anyone except the most ardent Ayn Rand fetishists.

Demanding that people produce money they may or may not owe so that they may access justice is simply unconscionable, not to mention incompatible with a free and democratic society. Then, once they have lost that home and have nowhere else to sleep, they are charged for the privilege of sleeping on the streets. It is positively feudal.

The homeless of Tennessee can take some comfort in knowing that they are not alone, though – at least according to Republican State Representative Frank Niceley. Rather, they should take inspiration from historical figures who have overcome homelessness, like – and I kid you not – Adolf Hitler. “[In] 1910, Hitler decided to live on the streets for a while,” Niceley said, as though homelessness was a hobby and Hitler was not evil incarnate. “So for two years, Hitler lived on the streets and practiced his oratory, and his body language, and how to connect with citizens and then went on to lead a life that got him in the history books.”

Only a Republican would think that Hitler would make a better neighbor than a person experiencing homelessness, or worse – that he is some sort of role model for the indigent. The comment was of course met with criticism, but it really sums up the attitude that the Tennessee GOP has towards the poor people of our great state. They rank below a genocidal dictator, or at least should try to be more like him.

I, for one, would rather live next to a homeless person than a Nazi. I would also rather no one emulates Hitler or looks at him as some sort of role model. Perhaps I expect too much.

The people of Tennessee, however, do not. It is not expecting too much of the people we elected to expect they put our interests above those of corporate landlords and big-money real estate developers. It is not too much to expect that as we face a staggeringly low housing supply, increased rental prices, rising interest rates and purchase prices, historic rates of inflation and the tail-end of a once-in-a-century pandemic which rewrote the rules of the modern economy that our lawmakers might be on our side.

Rather than passing draconian laws meant to help crack down on protestors and the indigent, Republicans’ time in Tennessee would be better spent bringing in more public and affordable housing. It is time for our politicians to find a way to lower the state’s housing prices so its people can afford to live here – and not just on our streets.

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