When the Tennessee legislature moved to push Occupy Nashville off of Legislative Plaza earlier this year, they inadvertently threatened the homeless.
Passed in late January and put into effect on March 9th, Senate Bill 2508 was designed to force Occupiers from their campsites by making sleeping on state-owned property, including parks, sidewalks, and underpasses, a Class A misdemeanor. But the law's broad language outlaws sleeping on state property for anyone, including the homeless.
Now, Homeless Organizing for Power and Equality (H.O.P.E.) has teamed up with the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center to fight against the law.
"The legislature was so irresponsible in how they wrote this law," said Brad Watkins of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center. "By criminalizing sleeping on state-owned property, what they've done is create a vagrancy statute."
"The other thing that shows the real mean-spiritedness of the law," Watkins continued, "is that the Class A misdemeanor carries a penalty of up to 11 months and 29 days in prison and/or a $2,500 fine. This makes sleeping on state-owned property tantamount to a domestic violence charge or an assault charge. It's cruel and unusual punishment, clearly."
With the penalty for sleeping on state-owned property set so high, Watkins expects to see the homeless opt for squatting in abandoned buildings, which carries a maximum penalty of three weeks in jail and/or a $50 fine.
"It shows the short-sightedness and just how irrational the state legislature has become where they pass a law that actually incentivizes squatting," Watkins said. "They're going to be arrested either way, so they might as well be comfortable. People on the street aren't dumb. They're going to figure that out and open a can of worms."
The state of Tennessee has inadequate shelter resources and has been defunding a number of programs that provide aid for those suffering from mental illnesses and substance abuse. Critics say this law is additional salt in the wounds of the homeless.
While the law has not yet been enforced, the state is currently working on procedures for enforcement.
Representatives from H.O.P.E. and the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center are working on scheduling a meeting with District Attorney Amy Weirich to discuss the implications of the bill on homelessness in Memphis. Weirich did not return a call for comment by press time.
"We are going to demand that the district attorney publicly state that her office is not going to prosecute people experiencing homelessness under this law," Watkins said.
They have also scheduled a protest of the bill to be held on May 1st outside of the Shelby County Criminal Justice Center at 201 Poplar.
"I very much believe that this law is going to be challenged in court," Watkins said. "I believe that eventually it will be struck down as a vagrancy statute, but that could take years. So in the meantime, I think we should do everything we can to oppose the criminalization of poverty."