Tennessee Lawmakers Vote to Criminalize Homelessness

criminalization of homelessness tennessee

In mid-April, Tennessee lawmakers passed a bill that makes it a crime for homeless people to camp, sleep, or otherwise house themselves under roads and bridges.

House Bill 0978 and its counterpart, Senate Bill 1610, will make it a Class E felony for anyone to “camp on property owned by the state knowing that the area on which the camping occurs is not specifically designated for use as a camping area.”

It would also expand the state’s Equal Access to Public Property Act of 2012, which outlaws public camping to all public property rather than state-owned property alone.

The bill passed Tennessee’s House of Representatives by a 57-28 margin and the Senate by a 22-10 margin. It is awaiting Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s signature. If signed, it will go into effect in July 2023.

Bill sponsors and local lawmakers have defended the bill fervently since its passage. For instance, Sen. Paul Bailey (R-Sparta) and Rep. Ryan Williams (R-Cookeville) defended the measure as another tool that law enforcement agencies can use to maintain public safety.

“This would be up to local authorities as to whether they want to enforce this law,” Bailey said. “This is not mandatory, but just gives them the ability to do so.”

Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs has said that the bill is an important step for the state to solve its homelessness issues. 

“Allowing homeless people to camp on public property does not help them – it enables them and prevents them from seeking the aid and resources they need to get back on their feet,” Mayor Jacobs tweeted.

The bill comes as homelessness in Tennessee appears to be declining. As of January 2020, the state had more than 7,200 experiencing homelessness on a single night, according to data from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. That represents a drop of just 200 people from the previous national count.

In response to the bill, several groups called on Gov. Lee to veto the bill. For instance, more than 300 religious leaders in Tennessee penned a letter to the governor arguing that the bill “tramples on the rights of the poor and further entrenches people in unjust cycles of criminalization and poverty.”

“We know that you are not only committed to your faith but that you’re also committed to criminal justice reform,” the letter to Lee reads in part. “Instead of preventing crime, this bill is creating crimes by charging people with a felony offense for simply existing on public land— even when no other shelter options are available.”

Lawmakers on the left side of the aisle have decried the bill as one that will make it harder for many people experiencing homelessness to find stable, supportive housing. 

HB 0978 would put many homeless members in our state into the criminal justice system for ‘camping, sleeping or housing’ under a bridge or overpass or anywhere outside,” Rep. Torrey Harris (D-Memphis) tweeted after the bill was passed. “This is crazy. How about help?”

Tennessee is not the only state working to increase its criminalization of homelessness.

For example, Georgia’s legislature is also considering a “Reducing Street Homelessness Act” bill. This bill would preclude cities with a per-capita homelessness rate higher than the state from receiving state funds if they do not enforce a local camping ban.

New York has also stepped up its enforcement efforts concerning unsheltered homelessness. Over the last month, New York City’s police department has cleared more than 318 homeless encampments after Mayor Eric Adams called for more enforcement.

To Lucas Day, an intern with the Michigan Coalition Against Homelessness, bills that criminalize homelessness simply serve to deteriorate the relationship between people experiencing homelessness and the communities in which they reside.

“A brush with law enforcement can further decimate a homeless individual’s mental health, and a criminal infraction could mean fewer rental units will accept them,” Day wrote. “If law enforcement is often used to address homelessness, the relationship between police and homeless communities can become hostile.”

How You Can Help

The pandemic proved that we need to rethink housing in the U.S. It also showed that many programs designed to address homelessness are rooted in law enforcement rather than social services.

Contact your officials and representatives. Tell them you support revamping the way your city addresses homelessness. Handcuffs do not get anyone closer to stable housing. Instead, we need to focus on compassionate solutions, which is the first step to ending homelessness.

Robert Davis

Robert Davis

Robert is a freelance journalist based in Colorado who covers housing, police, and local government.

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