Authorities see policing limits as harassment of homeless adds to jail woes

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Homeless man Henry Knotts talks About the city's evisceration of a homeless camp under a bridge. (Photo TV 12 WDEF.com)

Homeless man Henry Knotts talks about city government’s evisceration of a homeless camp under a bridge in Jauary 2016. (Photo TV 12 WDEF.com)

Chattanooga appears to be more blessed compared to other cities as regards its homeless people as city government is nowhere near as punitive as other cities in police treatment of homeless people.

By David Tulis / Noogaradio 92.7

Sheriff Jim Hammond, burdened by an inflow of arrestees by local city cops and his own deputies, says a quarter of the people in two county jail complexes suffer from mental illness. Many are poor enough to be homeless, are on the verge of it or are set to be cast that way after pretrial incarceration and law enforcement disturbance of their already frayed lives and routines.

Mr. Hammond, elected to office and the most powerful public figure in the county, proposes a program to effectively decriminalize mental illness, homelessness and drug addiction.

No city ordinance exists which criminalizes homelessness as they do in other cities in which policing is used as a punitive social management instrument to dislocate homeless camps, disrupt routines among the homeless, steal blankets from, forbid them from sleeping in public or banishing them through successive criminal misdemeanor cases. The city has enforced, however, its ordinance against aggressive panhandling.

A survey in January 2016 by 50 volunteers counted 527 homeless people in 11 area counties, down from 634 people the year before. Of these, 96 people were under the age of 18. Dillon Burroughs of Relevant Hope says that about 60 locations across Chattanooga serve as homeless encampments, a number that is in flux, and the locations of which are also impermanent.

There is no homeless ordinance or rule against camps, police Lt. Scott Fulgham told the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Courts have long tossed vagrancy laws as unconstitutionally vague. Tennessee’s disorderly harassing conduct statute is subject to being overturned for vagueness, if only it were to be properly challenged.

In January 2016, a camp under an overpass on Broad Street in the Southside was demolished by reportedly an unknown party, with the city and Collier Construction, building an apartment complex nearby, denying they had anything to do with its demolition. Two days later the city admitted it had destroyed the hovels.

Seeming gains, political hay

City government in February celebrated a letter from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Veterans Affairs declared that “the city of Chattanooga has effectively ended homelessness among veterans.” It goes on to say, “We are confident that the infrastructure and systems you have built will ensure that any veteran experiencing homelessness and Chattanooga will get the support they need to quickly obtain a permanent home.”

The letter was strong support for Mayor Andy Berke and appeared just before elections, which turned strongly in his favor.

Homeless people are often disruptive, ill-mannered, aggressive and dirty. They are subject to police management because of confrontations with business people, pedestrians and others.

“Frequent incarceration disrupts their access to social services and undermines their employability, cutting of potential pathways out of homelessness,” says sociologist Alex Vitale in new book, The End of Policing.

➤ A heavily medicated homeless man in a wheelchair, discharged from a Cleveland, Tenn., hospital, became drew media attention when a well-intentioned passerby, Joshua Standifer, sought to help him and was declared persona non grata by Tennova hospital after three live Facebook video feeds about the encounter.

➤ Homeless man Gerald Melton, 54, complained to the user of an SUV about fumes and loud music near Music Row in Nashville. He demanded that Katie Quackenbush move away, and after an argument she shot him twice, it is alleged in a police report.

➤ Encampments in Chattanooga have been bulldozed. In 2014 the railroad demolished a camp at  Peeples Street. In 2016 the city’s public works department accidentally razed a camp under a Broad Street overpass.

Disturbed people clog jails

Sheriff Hammond is determined to separate peacekeeping and law enforcement from the social problems of homelessness and mental illness. “At any given point in time,” says he says, “25 to 40 percent of the inmates in our jail can be classified as having had or presently having some degree of mental illness. Since our psychiatric hospitals and mental institutions began ‘deinstitutionalizing’ in the 1950s, keeping patients in private homes and similar provisions (community-based treatment centers) has become the norm.

“Accordingly, our jails and prisons have become the mental health institutions in our country. The
majority of these people are homeless as well, so the continuing cycle between jails, emergency rooms, hospitals, and other temporary treatment centers, continues to cost our taxpayers millions of dollars a year to maintain a broken system. Yes, the system is broken, but we have begun earnestly addressing this situation locally to bring about true systemic change.”

Police and sheriff’s department officers, a few of them, take crisis intervention training. The April 2016 class graduated 28 officers. A second class in 2016 at the police department graduated 29 people, giving officers better means to address problems among mentally deranged or different people and the homeless.

Sources

https://connect.chattanooga.gov/veterans/

Judy Walton, “Sheriff unveils plan for housing, services to get mentally ill out of Hamilton County Jail,” Chattanooga Times Free Press, Nov. 30, 2017. http://www.timesfreepress.com/news/local/story/2017/nov/30/sheriff-hammond-unveils-plhousing-services-ge/458156/

Judy Walton, “Samaritan says helping homeless man got him threatened, banned by Bradley County hospital,” Chattanooga Times Free Press, June 9, 2017. http://www.timesfreepress.com/news/local/story/2017/jun/09/samaritan-says-helping-homeless-man-got-him-threatened-banned-bradley-hospital/432610/

Susan Evan, “Woman charged in shooting of homeless man,” Wrcbtv.com, Sept. 11, 2017.  http://www.wrcbtv.com/story/36341472/woman-charged-in-shooting-of-homeless-man

2016 annual report, Hamilton County sheriff’s department. http://www.hcsheriff.gov/support/annual_reports/hcso_2016_annual_report.pdf

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