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Formerly homeless woman says camping law will make things worse

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Posted at 4:45 PM, May 05, 2022

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — An impending law that makes illegal camping on public land could have serious consequences for the homeless population.

Gov. Bill Lee decided to allow the bill to pass by neither vetoing nor signing it, despite concerns about how it will impact the homeless.

Advocates for the homeless said this move will create fear in a community with nowhere to go.

Liz Mallard was homeless before getting into Section 8 housing last August. She spent more than a decade on the streets. Now, she spends time volunteering at the Colby's Army barn in Ashland City, where people go to seek therapy through caring for and riding horses.

Her life was not always this peaceful. She recalled living outside through harsh winters and summers, struggling with alcohol abuse.

"I know I was very very malnourished, and the drinking definitely had a big part in it," Mallard said.

Other advocates helped get her into housing. There's an effort in Nashville to help the hundreds of people currently on the streets.

For many years she lived in a place called Brookmeade Park. An area where supporters of HB978 use as an example of homeless camping getting out of control.

The bill makes it a felony to camp on public land and also creates a misdemeanor for people to camp under state bridges and overpasses.

Mallard said many of her friends are still living in the camp.

"They're not given an opportunity. They're just pushed aside," she said. "With this bill being passed, they're getting arrested and punished, sentenced to jail for things that are out of their control."

The felony allows for up to six years in prison for an offense.

Mallard said it's disappointing and will cause fear for a population of people who are trying to stay alive.

"It's scary to know if asking for a meal is going to get you arrested. It's scary to think that you trying to find a place to sleep is going to put you in jail," she said.

In the past, Gov. Lee claimed he was a homeless advocate. But Mallard asks how can that be true?

"Letting [the bill] slip through the cracks is actually worse than seeing it, just kind of putting it on the backburner and not even addressing. And for an advocate for the homeless, that just doesn't really fit," she said.

Lee released a letter on May 3, which said he understood the intent of the bill but that it could be counterproductive.

"I am concerned about the unintended consequences, operational costs and inconsistent enforcement, and we should actively monitor the effects of this legislation," he wrote.

Lisa Wysocky is the founder of Colby's Army. The organization goes out into homeless camps and tries to help them in the housing process. She said gaining the trust of homeless people is already difficult. This bill will make it even worse.

Housing takes months to get into and there's not enough of it in the city to house everyone. She said adding another obstacle, like the fear of being thrown in prison, won't help.