More than 30 homeless and formerly homeless people held a press conference at the corner of Washington and Third downtown this afternoon to voice opposition to a new law that makes it a crime to sleep on state property.
The law, which passed earlier this year, makes it a Class A misdemeanor to use tents, tarps, and other temporary shelters for sleeping, making fires, or using portable cooking equipment on Tennessee-owned property. This includes, but is not limited to, state parks, recreation areas, historic buildings, educational institutions, and natural green spaces. The law carries a penalty of up to 11 months and 29 days in jail and/or a $2,500 fine.
At the press conference, members of Homeless Organizing for Power and Equality (H.O.P.E.), a new organization composed fully of people that have or are currently experiencing homelessness, stood in front of the Shelby County Correctional Center at 201 Poplar as they expressed their dissatisfaction with the law.
The group discussed the details of a meeting they had earlier today with Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich, urging her to refuse to prosecute homeless people for violating the new law.
“This office is tasked with enforcing the laws that the General Assembly enacts. We do not pick and choose which laws we enforce,” Weirich said in a statement. “We do, however, have the discretion to review cases and decide the proper resolution based on the facts, circumstances, and the reasonable probability of conviction. This new law will not change how we prosecute cases in Shelby County. Nor will it change the way we work with outside agencies to do what we can to prevent issues that lead to crime.”
Marquella Scott, one of the H.O.P.E. members in attendance, said although the bill was formulated to deal with Occupy Nashville and their unwillingness to leave Legislative Plaza, it will affect everyone experiencing homelessness in the state.
“The 11/29 [jail penalty] to a homeless person equals a death sentence, because that’s time that they don’t have to get a job,” Scott said. “That’s time that they don’t have to get back in school. That’s time that they don’t have to take care of medical issues.”
Besides the bill, the group also discussed their support of Veterans Court. More than 30 percent of the city’s homeless are veterans.
The program, lead by General Sessions Criminal Court Judge Bill Anderson and others, provides veterans who have been arrested for crimes with the chance to receive help from the Veterans Administration Medical Center. If the veteran follows through on a treatment plan, criminal charges might be dismissed or penalties reduced.
The group also announced that they have a homeless liaison to work as a go-between with the Memphis Police Department and H.O.P.E. members regarding harassment and increasing homeless sensitivity training for officers.
Marian Bacon with the Memphis Center for Independent Living is also a member H.O.P.E. and was in attendance at the press conference. She says she’s concerned about the consequences of police fining or jailing homeless people under the new law.
“If you don’t have $6 to [pay for a night at] the shelter, how are you going to come up with $2,500?” Bacon said. “That means a homeless person will be criminalized and stuck in jail until they can come up with the money. With a Class A misdemeanor, if you get too many of them, that can be a felony. That’s a worse offense then getting a domestic assault charge.”
H.O.P.E. meets at Manna House at 1268 N. Jefferson on Thursdays at 7 p.m.