On Monday, Oct. 14, the Rome City Commission didn’t outlaw homelessness.
Or, at least, that’s what they say they didn’t do.
As a political science graduate of Georgia Highlands College and a former elected student council member of Columbia University’s General Studies Student Council, I understand the burden of moving forward with sensible, real-world-affecting laws and codes. If you listened to the Rome city commissioners briefly discuss the motive behind passing the Urban Camping and Panhandling ordinances, you will hear condolences and blessings, but not a lot of hope for those suffering now.
“Are we going to come up with a solution tomorrow? Nope. Are we going to come up with a solution next week? No. But we’re all working together to help ... it’s not going to be a quick fix, but we have to have something in place to go forward,” said Commissioner Sundai Stevenson.
I agree with Commissioner Stevenson that it definitely takes collaboration to solve complex social issues and that solutions don’t just appear overnight. It can take months, years, even decades for the dust to settle. But what I cannot agree with is how this motivates voting “yes” to codifying homelessness as a crime.
What is accomplished from this tactic? All but one commissioner, Commissioner Wendy Davis, voted “yes” on the Urban Camping and Panhandling ordinances. Their reasoning centered around their need to create a “tool” for the police department to use.
And that is what these ordinances do. They give tools to police officers to arrest the homeless and take legal possession of their property with no guarantee of return. It provides majority-conscious legal tools for us to conduct our civic lives supposedly in a safer, more productive manner.
These ordinances do neither for the homeless men, women and children of Rome and Floyd County.
One thing I learned about creating laws and legal jargon is that you have to define the actors and situations surrounding a proposed law or you cannot write the law. The commission has now publicly defined homelessness as something it’s not — urban camping. Urban camping sounds like something millennials do at Coachella or Bonnaroo or what iPhone lovers do when they camp outside of an Apple store waiting for the next iPhone release. Not someone who is mentally unsound or suffering immeasurably from the 100-plus degree Georgia heat because they have been wait-listed by our overburdened nonprofit shelters.
Do you know what is scarier than being “accosted” by a homeless person (as Commissioner Milton O. Slack mentioned)? Not having a roof over your head. Not knowing if you will eat today. Having medical debt that leaves you homeless after a heart attack. Being afraid to go back “home” where your husband may beat, and possibly kill, you and your kids.
I know that the city commissioners are passionate people, smart people, and that they do deep down care for the well-being of our community. But, where do you draw the line? You are the ones that are supposed to protect minorities from discrimination and vilification. You are supposed to hold their hand and lead them to viable solutions. That’s your job.
Instead, you have made it plain to everyone that you will choose to legislate over considering people’s lives a little more.
We expect people to be able to talk to police officers in a somewhat straightforward, efficient manner so we can work out whether or not someone committed a crime. How do you expect desperation, pain, and suffering to pan out in these situations? How would you feel if you woke up to someone “accosting” you about trying to sleep and then they take away all of your meager belongings?
The bottom line is we should really think longer and harder before pressing forward on a vote. Do you know what would have happened if the city commission had rejected the ordinances? Nothing. But sometimes, nothing is good. Sometimes, allowing more time to consider the consequences of legally-defining actions inspires new ideas and innovation.
We are all working toward a better tomorrow, a better next week.
We can’t get there if our fellow citizens are arrested and relocated when all they need is a helping hand. Isn’t that how we get to a better tomorrow? A better next week?
What do you think is harder? Legislation or being homeless and vilified?
Go to https://www.romefloyd.com/rome/commission, and let your representatives know how you feel about this ordinance. Also, remember that if you want to see a change, vote on Nov. 5 (or do early voting at the Floyd County Health Department until Nov. 1) for your next city commissioners for Wards 1 and 3 which is two-thirds of the City Commission. Now is the time to make your voice heard.