NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — A bill that would criminalize sleeping in a public park is now in the hands of Gov. Bill Lee, and in response, 250 faith leaders across Tennessee wrote a letter asking him to vetothe legislation.
The bill — SB1610/HB0978 — would create a Class C misdemeanor offense for the action, punishable only by a $50 fine and community service work between 20 and 40 hours for camping on public property. In 2020, lawmakers made camping on state property a felony. This happened after weeks of the People's Plaza protests at the state capitol. Faith leaders and homeless advocates have criticized the newly formed bill, saying it only deepens the hardships for those facing homelessness.
"Isaiah 58:7 calls us to 'provide the poor wanderer with shelter,' but no district in Tennessee currently has sufficient and accessible housing and shelter beds for those in need," faith leaders wrote in the letter. "Even when shelters do exist, many cannot meet the criteria for entry, so they are left with no other option but to sleep on public property while they work toward housing."
As written, the legislation expands the Equal Access to Public Property Act of 2012 to apply the offense of unauthorized camping on local government properties. This same legislation died in the legislature in 2021, though it passed the House. Its counterpart in the Senate only received one vote last year.
"Gov. Lee, we are asking you to not turn away from our neighbors in need," faith leaders wrote. "We are asking for your leadership on this issue because the leadership of too many of our elected officials has failed. Poverty is not a criminal issue — it’s an economic one. Instead of trying to address homelessness with handcuffs, we must bolster our state-wide homeless outreach services and ensure that everyone has adequate pathways into housing."
Lawmakers — like Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains — advocated for the bill after he drew the comparison to Adolf Hitler, who he said was previously homeless. He said people come out of homeless camps to lead a productive life, or an unproductive life in Hitler's case.
"We are praying that in your discernment process, you’ll find compassion, conviction and courage," faith leaders wrote at the end of the letter. "We’re urging you to veto this harmful and misguided bill and follow the sacred imperative we’ve all been given to love our neighbors, to defend the rights of the poor and to care for the most vulnerable among us."