Fining the Penniless

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602 S. Gay Street
2nd Floor
Knoxville, TN 37902

“For I was Homeless, and ye gave me a $50 citation that I cannot afford to pay.”

At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, council members voted to uphold a discriminatory and undemocratic ordinance targeting Knoxville’s homeless. The ordinance now makes it illegal to sit or lie on public sidewalks either in downtown or north of downtown (where Knoxville’s homeless congregate to take advantage of nearby homeless assistance programs). After a 90-day “educational period,” anyone found violating the ordinance will be subject to a $50 citation.

Although the ordinance, of course, does not specifically state that it targets homeless people, I find it interesting that the council members voting on the ordinance freely acknowledged this to be the truth of the matter. Not once did anyone assume we were talking about impinging the rights of the general public, but specifically those of the poor and homeless. Not once did Marilyn Roddy (who led the motion to support the ordinance), Steve Hall, Joe Hultquist, Joe Bailey, Rob Frost, or (the obnoxiously long-winded) Barbara Pelot bat an eyelash at the discrimination inherent in their votes to support denying a specific segment of the public access to public space!

These council members seemed untouched by their own blatant prejudice, untroubled by their obvious act of discrimination against Knoxville’s poor and homeless. Many of them cited a concern for small business as their overriding reason to uphold the ordinance despite their acknowledgment that homeless people really do not have much choice about where to stay, and despite the fact that none of the three people who showed up to express their support of the ordinance actually were small business owners in the area. Several in attendance, however, were homeless and were there to speak up for their right simply to exist in public.

This meant nothing to the City Council, apparently, and council member Rob Frost went as far as to admit, shamelessly, that he is less likely to enter a business if he sees homeless people sitting or lying near the entrance. Blaming poor people for your own irrational fears and prejudices? I say let’s fine Rob Frost $50 for letting his discriminatory thinking negatively impact our local economy!

Though the inhumanity of the ordinance should be obvious enough without it, you would think the fact that the Supreme Court recently ruled a similar ordinance in Portland, Ore. unconstitutional on three separate accounts would be enough for Knoxville to realize we’re walking on eggshells by attempting the same thing. You can bet a similar lawsuit will be pursued against the City of Knoxville, and given the verdict in Portland, you can see where this ridiculous waste-of-time-and-tax-dollars ordinance is going.

Gabby Kindell

Knoxville

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