Bill targeting camping on public property draws criticism from homeless advocates

Bill threatening penalties for camping on public property draws concern from homeless advocates
Posted at 5:58 PM, Apr 19, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-19 19:54:25-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Therese Shephard has been in and out of homelessness for ten years. Now she worries her tent off of I-24 could be the reason she is charged with a crime.

"What are we supposed to do? Where are we supposed to go?" Shephard asked.

A bill just passed the state legislature, making camping near state or interstate highways a Class C misdemeanor. The bill defines camping, in part, as using anything like tents or tarps to live out of. Carrying on with cooking activities or sleeping outside of a car using a sleeping bag is also described in the bill.

But it goes a step further.

In 2020, lawmakers made camping on "state property" a felony after the People's Plaza protests at the state capitol. The new legislation now makes camping on all "public property" a felony.

"This bill just basically makes sure that if there are those that have taken over public property, those local governments have the ability to basically clean up those areas and extend that access back to every citizen that's in that area," said Senator Paul Bailey, the bill's Senate sponsor.

The 2020 legislation was an expansion of the Equal Access to Public Property act in 2012. Senator Bailey says there's never been a felony issued since then.

"When you hear those that have opposed this bill say that we're criminalizing the homeless — that's not necessarily so," said Bailey. "It just was a tool in the toolbox to make sure that they understood that we are serious about trying to move those off of state property and now off of public property."

But critics say this isn't the answer.

"Yeah kick them out of this camp, go ahead; make yourself feel good," said volunteer coordinator for Layman Lessons Ministries, Lillian Weist. "They're just going to go to another corner, they've got to survive."

Now the legislation is headed to the governor's desk, awaiting his signature. Homeless advocates hope he'll veto it.

"I mean, I have been trying to get into housing for 18 years. Eighteen years and I can't get in. Where am I supposed to go?" said Shephard.

Bailey said it will be up to local law enforcement as well as the district attorney to enforce the bill.