Faith leaders deliver letter asking Gov. Lee to veto bill criminalizing homelessness

As the cost of housing in Tennessee rises, lawmakers have passed a bill making it illegal for homeless people to sleep outside on public property.
Published: Apr. 25, 2022 at 3:07 PM CDT|Updated: Apr. 25, 2022 at 7:27 PM CDT
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WSMV) - As the cost of housing in Tennessee rises, lawmakers have passed a bill making it illegal for homeless people to sleep outside on public property.

Some ministers wrote Gov. Bill Lee a letter, demanding he veto the bill instead of signing it into law. Some people said the measure unfairly targets the homeless.

“In Franklin, too often our jails have been used as the homeless shelter since we don’t have one and this is just going to make it worse,” Franklin Community Church pastor Kevin Riggs said.

On Monday, he and other Tennessee ministers took their concerns about House Bill 0978 to the state house by praying outside of Lee’s office and writing him a letter signed by nearly 300 people and organizations.

“We are called as people of faith to care for our neighbors, to love our neighbors, and this bill is not that,” Rev. Emily Haynes said.

If Lee signs the bill into law, camping on public property would be a felony. It could land you a $3,000 fine and up to six years in prison.

“By making it a crime, you’re not solving the situation at all,” Riggs said. “You are putting an extra burden on police, who have better things to do than to arrest people who are asleep on a park bench.”

“I know one thing. Jail is not going to be a good foot start into a new life OK,” Katy Rogers said. “They are overcrowded and all that sort of thing, so what they need is affordable housing.”

Rogers said she wants to see lawmakers work alongside the community to help reduce homelessness. She lives in affordable housing and said Nashville needs more of it.

“I could not have changed my life in any way, shape or form after my long journey back to Nashville. I could not have done it without housing,” Rogers said. “Every day I’m so grateful when I put my key into my door.”

Here’s a section of the letter the faith leaders delivered to Lee on Monday:

“We are called by God to ‘love our neighbors’ (Mark 12:31), to ‘defend the rights of the poor’ (Proverbs 31:9), and to ‘do justice and love mercy’ (Micah 6:8). SB1610/HB978, however, tramples on the rights of the poor and further entrenches people in unjust cycles of criminalization and poverty. [...] Isaiah 58:7 calls us to ‘provide the poor wanderer with shelter,’ but no district in Tennessee currently has sufficient and accessible housing and shelter beds for those in need [...] Governor Lee, we are asking you to not turn away from our neighbors in need. Poverty is not a criminal issue–it’s an economic one. Instead of trying to address homelessness with handcuffs, we must bolster our state-wide homeless outreach services and ensure that everyone has adequate pathways into housing.”

Riggs led a prayer lamenting that the state has chosen to criminalize the homeless over dealing with the issue of affordable housing, one of the main causes of homelessness.

“Please God, we ask you to open up Governor Lee’s eyes and heart,” Riggs prayed, “We pray that Your Spirit would lead him to make the right decision and to veto this oppressive law. As the prophet Isaiah said, ‘woe to those who make oppressive laws.’ And this is highly oppressive, to criminalize people who have no place to go, who are homeless, without helping those who are without homes. So, we are calling on Governor Lee to follow You and follow Your Word.”

Rev Lindsey Krinks, Co-founder and Director of Education at Open Table Nashville also called on Lee to live up to his campaign promises of criminal justice reform. She believes that this legislation turns struggling residents into criminals.

To read the full letter, click here

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