Commentary: Christian charity escapes Tennessee lawmakers on homeless issues

April 25, 2022 10:57 am
A homeless individual sleeps in a downtown Nashville park. (Photo by John Partipilo for the Tennessee Lookout)

A homeless individual sleeps in a downtown Nashville park. (Photo by John Partipilo for the Tennessee Lookout)

On Saturday night, Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs posted a tweet: “Allowing homeless people to camp on public property does not help them—it enables them and prevents them from seeking the aid and resources they need to get back on their feet.”

Jacobs doubtless tweeted in response to a bill the Tennessee legislature passed last week that criminalizes sleeping in public. House Bill 978, which makes sleeping or camping alongside a highway or exit ramp a Class C misdemeanor, expanding the offense of unauthorized camping on state property to all public property.

I’m going to take a wild stab that neither Jacobs, nor the 57 members of the Tennessee House and the 22 members of the Tennessee Senate who voted for the measure, have spent much time around individuals who are homeless.

During a couple of periods of my life, I’ve interacted with people in homelessness in fairly intense ways. While working at Nashville’s Oasis Center in the early 2000s, I spent several nights walking the streets with the center’s homeless outreach coordinator, specifically trying to connect homeless teens with resources.  I learned most had left a family situation rife with poverty and abuse. 

And a few years ago, I served as editor of The Contributor, the Nashville publication sold by homeless vendors. In that position, I talked with our vendors daily. I interviewed them and wrote about them and in doing so, I got quite a bit of insight into how they became homeless and why they continued to be so.

None of this makes me an expert but it gave me enough insight to say with confidence that allowing people who are homeless to pitch a tent by the side of the road or in a park doesn’t “enable” them to do squat and it certainly doesn’t keep them from seeking out resources. 

You know what keeps them from seeking resources? Undiagnosed or untreated mental illness, which a lack of healthcare insurance doesn’t help. More pointedly, the Tennessee legislature’s continued refusal to accept billions of dollars in federal Medicaid expansion is a willful refusal by our state’s GOP leaders to help the very people they are criminalizing. 

Substance abuse issues are also a problem for many of those in homelessness and in some cases, those go hand-in-hand with mental illness. Those familiar with the two conditions call that “self medicating.” When you don’t have health insurance, a stable family or access to treatment and medication, you might turn to alcohol or drugs to numb pain or drown the voices in your head. 

And those seeking resources to help will find few options. The Nashville Rescue Mission and Room at the Inn have far more applicants for housing and services than resources to meet the demand. 

I hear a lot of noise about an apparent rise in the number of homeless people in Nashville. In West Nashville, a park has largely been consumed by the number of those in homelessness camping there. Neighbors are upset and don’t feel comfortable using the park and I understand their frustration. 

Tennessee’s homeless individuals who seek resources have few options. Missions and nonprofits to aid those in homelessness have greater demands than resources and the Tennessee Legislature’s failure to expand Medicaid limits healthcare for the poor and homeless.

But, the two top officials of Nashville’s Homeless Impact Division stepped down in October, including director Judith Tackett, who was trusted by government officials, nonprofit activists and members of the homeless community. Shortly after, Nashville Mayor John Cooper offered to give metro councilmembers tours of homeless encampments, comparing the tours, in a statement, to the same sort of site visits economic development executives conduct for corporate relocations. 

The fact is that homelessness is on the rise, not just in Tennessee but across the country. It was on the rise before the COVID-19 pandemic started and experts say we haven’t felt the full effect yet of how the pandemic may cause it to go higher. 

In Nashville, affordable housing is almost nil. It’s tough to find a one-bedroom apartment for under $1,000 much less be able to afford a house. 

Solutions are hard, but they aren’t impossible. Our sibling outlet, the Colorado Newsline, has reported that Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, is working with other lawmakers to carve out $200 million from American Rescue Plan funds for transitional housing and permanent affordable housing, vocational training for homeless Coloradans and substance abuse treatment centers.

Meanwhile in Tennessee, our lawmakers criminalize sleeping in public and Sen. Frank Niceley talks about what a fine role model Adolf Hitler was for homeless people, pointing out he practiced his oratory while living on the streets of Vienna. What an inspiration!

I have no hope at this point that Gov. Bill Lee, despite talk of his Christian faith, will take similar steps as Polis to help find solutions for Tennessee’s homeless. The least Lee could do is veto the mean-spirited and un-Christian bill that moved from the legislature to his desk on Friday. 

Lee probably won’t veto the bill either, but if he needs guidance, he might consult his Bible for words from Matthew 25:35-40: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in . . . “

Can homelessness be solved? Not for everyone. I don’t know of a way to ensure permanent and supportive housing for every homeless person in Tennessee. But as evidenced by Colorado, our state and local leaders have tools at their disposal. 

Using the tools and working on solutions for a complex issue like homelessness isn’t easy, but it’s certain to be more effective—and Christlike—than treating vulnerable people as criminals. 

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Holly McCall
Holly McCall

Holly McCall has been a fixture in Tennessee media and politics for decades. She covered city hall for papers in Columbus, Ohio and Joplin, Missouri before returning to Tennessee with the Nashville Business Journal. She has served as political analyst for WZTV Fox 17 and provided communications consulting for political campaigns at all levels, from city council to presidential. Holly brings a deep wealth of knowledge about Tennessee’s political processes and players and likes nothing better than getting into the weeds of how political deals are made.