The Compassionate Assistance and Right to Exist Act (CARE) before the Tennessee legislature this session has a real chance to improve how those experiencing homelessness are treated and facilitate our ability to help people in need. But time is of the essence if we hope to make a difference.
The proposed CARE act, aims to do 5 things: (1) protect the rights of faith groups and other organizations seeking to assist people experiencing poverty and homelessness; (2) protect everyone’s right to life and liberty, and prioritize the safety of everyone on our streets by focusing on people who commit crimes rather than those who are participating in acts of daily living like sitting, sleeping, or simply existing in public; (3) save taxpayers and the State of TN money by reducing needless jail and court costs; (4) remove obstacles to stability that un-housed people often endure such as the loss of property, IDs, and driver’s licenses, barriers to employment, and unpayable fines, court costs, and jail time; and (5) ensure that the State of TN addresses homelessness as an economic and social issue and not a criminal one.
The CARE Act (HB2430/SB2453), sponsored by Rep. Mike Stewart and Sen. Ophelia Ford, is likely to come up before the House Civil Justice Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee this Wednesday, March 26th. If we can get as many as 500 letters to state senators and representatives, ideally contacting them directly as well, we believe this bill might very well become law. Not a large number, but it only happens if we sit down and do it. Please encourage others you work with to join us. Here is a link to find out who your senator or representative is: http://www.capitol.tn.gov/legislators/ . Mailed personal letters get the most attention, but email can be effective, especially if you know your representative personally. To be effective, your email or letter should be received by Tuesday, March 25th.
We can make a difference, but only if we try.
March 4, 2014, Nashville, TN—Faith leaders will join with homeless advocates from the Nashville Homeless Organizing Coalition (NHOC) to celebrate an Ash Wednesday service, March 5th, at 8:00 a.m. on the steps leading up to the War Memorial Plaza. They invite all to gather as a community to participate in a liturgy of mourning and repentance for those suffering under the weight of homelessness and poverty. They call all to penitent reflection and action to remedy unjust laws and policies that negatively and disproportionately affect the poor and homeless, and to urge support for the Compassionate Assistance and Right to Exist (CARE) Act now before the legislature (HB2430/SB2453). They will also challenge legislators and all people of conscience to give up their homes for a night during Lent to gain a better understanding of the hardships faced by people experiencing homelessness.* They ask, what would Jesus, or a person of conscience in your faith tradition, do for the homeless and dispossessed? Would he call for poverty to be treated with jails and fines, or with compassionate assistance?
Local advocates are heartened that, by introducing the CARE Act, the legislature is taking the first steps to ensure that the rights of faith groups and our most vulnerable neighbors are protected. If passed, it will save taxpayers money, empower law enforcement to focus on reducing crime rather than treating poverty as a criminal justice problem, and empower faith groups and others to work toward ending homelessness through providing needed assistance, services, and housing.
Tennessee has one of the highest rates of child poverty in the nation and lacks adequate housing and shelter space to accommodate all of the men, women, and children in need. Across the state, more than 16,000 school children are homeless, and 36% of the rural homeless are between 18 and 24. In Nashville alone, it is estimated that there are over 4,000 homeless adults and over 2,800 homeless school children, yet there are less than 1,700 shelter and transitional housing beds on any given night. Furthermore, during 2013, over 60 people who experienced homelessness died in Nashville. Preventing groups from helping the un-housed and criminalizing acts of daily living is not the answer. The CARE Act will help to ensure that Tennesseans will be free to continue to assist members of our community as they strive to overcome poverty, and that poverty and homelessness will be treated as a social service issue, rather than a criminal justice one.
*NHOC will host an “Urban Plunge” on Friday, March 21st for all those willing to participate. More details can be found at www.nashvillehomelessorganizing.com under “Projects.”
(Image courtesy of the Western Regional Advocacy project; numbers are based on national surveys.)
Increasingly cities have sought to sweep the homeless of the streets by criminalizing activities so necessary to survival: the right to sleep, the right to rest, the right to eat, and the right to walk in public places. No public restrooms are provided by the city. There are too few shelter beds and low cost housing units. There are too few jobs to go around. But rather than doing something about the causes of misery, the city seeks to “clean up” its streets by driving people into the bushes and riverbanks, or to the steps of the few churches brave enough to help.
The Nashville Homeless Organizing Coalition is working to change this. It is cruel and inhumane to so treat the most vulnerable; it is morally wrong to punish them for problems beyond their abilities to correct; it is against the beliefs of all the major religious traditions to ignore their plight; it is against the the foundations of our government; and it is even financially irresponsible, as punishment is more expensive than care.
No right is more at the core of the American and English tradition of protecting the individual than the right to exist, the right to self-preservation, as spoken of by John Locke, who derives from it the other human rights that are so dear to Americans. And it is on this foundation that Jefferson writes in the Declaration “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…” The Tennessee Constitution built on this when it sought to protect in its Bill of Rights, originally the first part of the Constitution, protections on life, liberty, and property. It further states that “The Legislature shall pass no law authorizing imprisonment for debt in civil cases.” Yet people are imprisoned essentially for not being able to pay fines and court costs every day.
People who are homeless have very little money. If you have no money, you cannot pay rent and can’t get a hotel (or only for a brief time). Everyone has a right to exist—to rest, to eat, to use the restroom, to walk and sit on public properties, and to sleep. Yet the homeless are often harassed or arrested for these very activities with the thought that this will drive them away. But this harassment makes their lives worse and makes it more difficult to get out of homelessness, driving them into debt or to prison—contrary to the Tennessee Bill of Rights. People experiencing homelessness have few choices, but they also know if they give in to pressure and go someplace else, they will face the same cycle of harassment. Once ticketed or arrested, unlike the middle class, the homeless can’t pay an attorney or fines if they are levied, so they often end up in contempt of court with another fine they also can’t pay, or with jail time. All of these events cruelly and unnecessarily wreck peoples lives with harassment and worry, and make it more difficult for the homeless to get back on their feet.
Besides the personal cost, the taxpayer often foots the bill, not only for the police who, though they may not want to, are expected to harass people instead of helping them, but for the court costs, attorney’s fees, and sometimes jail time. Multiple misdemeanor offenses for sleeping or sitting in public, especially with a contempt of court citation, can add up to a felony offense, and then it becomes very difficult to find a job, as many employers won’t hire you with a felony offense even if it arises out of only minor offenses. Just getting around the city to deal with the courts takes time and money. It costs far more to turn the homeless unjustly into criminals than it does to care for them. ”We learned that you could either sustain people in homelessness for $35,000 to $150,000 a year, or you could literally end their homelessness for $13,000 to $25,000 a year,” – Philip Mangano, former National Homeless policy Czar to President Bush and Obama. http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2012/mar/12/shaun-donovan/hud-secretary-says-homeless-person-costs-taxpayers/
We encourage all people to know their rights better. Here is a handout that may be useful, in PDF form ( Know Your Rights ). Write to your local newspaper, councilperson, mayor, representatives, senators, governor, President and let them know that criminalization is cruel, unjust, self-defeating, and a waste of money. Help us work to keep peoples lives from being destroyed by an unjust criminal justice system.