Tennessee is about to become the first state to make camping on public land a felony
Miranda Atnip lost her home during the coronavirus pandemic after her boyfriend moved out and she fell behind on bills. Living in a car, the 34-year-old worries every day about getting money for food, finding somewhere to shower, and saving up enough money for an apartment where her three children can live with her again.
Now she has a new worry: Tennessee is about to become the first U.S. state to make it a felony to camp on local public property such as parks.
"Honestly, it's going to be hard," Atnip said of the law, which takes effect July 1. "I don't know where else to go."
Tennessee already made it a felony in 2020 to camp on most state-owned property. In pushing the expansion, Sen. Paul Bailey noted that no one has been convicted under that law and said he doesn't expect this one to be enforced much, either. Neither does Luke Eldridge, a man who has worked with homeless people in the city of Cookeville and supports Bailey's plan — in part because he hopes it will spur people who care about the homeless to work with him on long-term solutions.
The law requires that violators receive at least 24 hours notice before an arrest. The felony charge is punishable by up to six years in prison and the loss of voting rights.
"It's going to be up to prosecutors ... if they want to issue a felony," Bailey said. "But it's only going to come to that if people really don't want to move."
After several years of steady decline, homelessness in the United States began increasing in 2017. A survey in January 2020 found for the first time that the number of unsheltered homeless people exceeded those in shelters. The problem was exacerbated by COVID-19, with shelters limiting capacity.
Public pressure to do something about the increasing number of highly visible homeless encampments has pushed even many traditionally liberal cities to clear them. Although camping has generally been regulated by local vagrancy laws, Texas passed a statewide ban last year. Municipalities that fail to enforce the ban risk losing state funding. Several other states have introduced similar bills, but Tennessee is the only one to make camping a felony.
Bailey's district includes Cookeville, a city of about 35,000 people between Nashville and Knoxville, where the local newspaper has chronicled growing concern with the increasing number of homeless people. The Herald-Citizen reported last year that complaints about panhandlers nearly doubled between 2019 and 2020, from 157 to 300. In 2021, the city installed signs encouraging residents to give to charities instead of panhandlers. And the City Council twice considered panhandling bans.
The Republican lawmaker acknowledges that complaints from Cookeville got his attention. City council members have told him that Nashville ships its homeless here, Bailey said. It's a rumor many in Cookeville have heard and Bailey seems to believe. When Nashville fenced off a downtown park for renovation recently, the homeless people who frequented it disappeared. "Where did they go?" Bailey asked.
Atnip laughed at the idea of people shipped in from Nashville. She was living in nearby Monterey when she lost her home and had to send her children to live with her parents. She has received some government help, but not enough to get her back on her feet, she said. At one point she got a housing voucher but couldn't find a landlord who would accept it. She and her new husband saved enough to finance a used car and were working as delivery drivers until it broke down. Now she's afraid they will lose the car and have to move to a tent, though she isn't sure where they will pitch it.
"It seems like once one thing goes wrong, it kind of snowballs," Atnip said. "We were making money with DoorDash. Our bills were paid. We were saving. Then the car goes kaput and everything goes bad."
Eldridge, who has worked with Cookeville's homeless for a decade, is an unexpected advocate of the camping ban. He said he wants to continue helping the homeless, but some people aren't motivated to improve their situation. Some are addicted to drugs, he said, and some are hiding from law enforcement. Eldridge estimates there are about 60 people living outside more or less permanently in Cookeville, and he knows them all.
"Most of them have been here a few years, and not once have they asked for housing help," he said.
Eldridge knows his position is unpopular with other advocates.
"The big problem with this law is that it does nothing to solve homelessness. In fact, it will make the problem worse," said Bobby Watts, CEO of the National Healthcare for the Homeless Council. "Having a felony on your record makes it hard to qualify for some types of housing, harder to get a job, harder to qualify for benefits."
Not everyone wants to be in a crowded shelter with a curfew, but people will move off the streets given the right opportunities, Watts said. Homelessness among U.S. military veterans, for example, has been cut nearly in half over the past decade through a combination of housing subsidies and social services.
"It's not magic," he said. "What works for that population, works for every population."
Tina Lomax, who runs Seeds of Hope of Tennessee in nearby Sparta, was once homeless with her children. Many people are just one paycheck or one tragedy away from being on the streets, she said. Even in her community of 5,000, affordable housing is very hard to come by.
"If you have a felony on your record — holy smokes!" she said.
Eldridge, like Sen. Bailey, said he doesn't expect many people to be prosecuted for sleeping on public property. "I can promise, they're not going to be out here rounding up homeless people," he said of Cookeville law enforcement. But he doesn't know what might happen in other parts of the state.
He hopes the new law will spur some of its opponents to work with him on long-term solutions for Cookeville's homeless. If they all worked together it would mean "a lot of resources and possible funding sources to assist those in need," he said.
But other advocates don't think threatening people with a felony is a good way to help them.
"Criminalizing homelessness just makes people criminals," Watts said.