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'They’re in need of housing, not punishment' | Manna House founder says Tenn. bill will hinder the homeless

Peter Gathje said a Tennessee bill would make an already tough situation for the unhoused even worse.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — “This is Manna House,” said Peter Gathje on Thursday, opening the non-profit’s door on Jefferson Avenue in Midtown.

A place to feel welcome. 

“What keeps me invested are the people,” said the organization’s founder  The guests who come here are some really wonderful people. Of course, they’re people in need as well.”

When on the streets many of the homeless are passed by.  

At Manna House, they’re greeted with a smile.

“This is a place that is a community and a sanctuary so it’s not drive-by charity, it’s hospitality.”

Gathje, who’s been with the non-profit since the beginning said there is a difference. 

Manna House offers basic services like showers.

“Underwear, socks, t-shirts, pants, whatever kind of clothing that they need,” explained the longtime volunteer.

Manna House serves 80 people each day that it is open. That’s hundreds of people over a month. 

But Gathje said Senate Bill 1610/House Bill 978 would make an already tough situation even worse for so many.

RELATED: Bill to punish homeless for sleeping in public spaces passes state House and Senate

It would make it a Class C misdemeanor to camp under a bridge or highway.

“It’s on their record,” Gathje said. “So when they would get off the streets, which most people do, and they apply for a job then they have to say they’ve been convicted of this. Of basically being homeless.”

Manna House signed an open letter to Governor Bill Lee to veto the measure and said they have yet to receive a response. The bill passed the Tennessee House and Senate and is awaiting action or inaction by the governor. 

He said it won't help people get work, but rather punish them for needing housing.

RELATED: Memphis man steps up to help the homeless

“Sure I don’t like people living under a bridge, but it’s not the fault of the people under the bridge. It’s the fault of the rest of us who have created a society in which housing is not affordable and not available to people who are in poverty.”

Gathje said after working with the homeless for 15 years, this bill is focusing on the symptoms of homelessness and not the cause. 

“When people are being treated with respect they get their self-respect back.”

Able to feel human.

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