The Right to Exist


(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.

Rally by Richard Call (800x533 web)


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.

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.