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Bill would expand criminal offenses to homeless camping and panhandling

nashville homeless camp.JPG
Posted at 10:42 PM, Mar 31, 2021

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Tennessee, like other states, has a growing homeless problem. State lawmakers say they are creating legislation they believe will protect those living on the streets and the general public.

But there is one proposal that has some people divided on the issue.

State Senate bill 1610/HB 978 makes it a Class C misdemeanor offense for a person to solicit from any public roadway, shoulder, berm, or right-of-way of a controlled-access highway or entrance or exit ramp of such highway.

The bill goes further by adding camping on the shoulder, berm, or right-of-way of a state or interstate highway; or camping under a bridge or overpass, or within an underpass, of a state or interstate highway.

"This is totally about public safety for all Tennessee citizens including our homeless population. We just want to make that everyone remains safe on our public roads as well as public right a-ways," said State Senator Paul Bailey.

Under the bill, a person will receive a warning citation for a first offense.

A second or subsequent offense will be punishable by either a $50.00 fine and a sentence to 20-40 hours of community service work, or a sentence of 20-40 hours of litter removal.

"It’s about compassion for these folks; there’s a lot of misunderstanding about it. Most of our communities know Senator Bailey and I our passionate about our state and service," said Representative Ryan Williams, "This is just a way to extend the current statute to allow for public safety and public health in our communities and across the state in the same way that it does in the state."

The lawmakers say it’s one of a series of legislation to help the homeless --- like ending the certificate of need to open more mental health facilities which is needed for people to receive treatment.

The Equal Access to Public Property Act of 2012 generally makes it a Class E felony offense for a person to camp on property owned by the state not specifically designated for use as a camping area.

This bill makes the Equal Access to Public Property Act of 2012 applicable to all public property rather than only state-owned property.

This bill also extends to local governments and their employees the provisions of the Act concerning impoundment and disposal of camping equipment that is used in violation of the Act.

Bailey and Williams says the bill is not designed to send anyone to jail and it's not a felony offense.

"It is purely a Class C misdemeanor," said Bailey.

James Wilke says he struggles with mental illness and even spent nearly a decade in prison before he found himself with no place to call home.

"I had a one-man tent and I had an air mattress and stuff in there. I had my scooter that was in there with me," Wilke said.

He says thanks to organizations like the Salvation Army, he is steps away from finding a permanent home.

But he knows how easy it can be to land back in that tent; which why he's upset to hear state lawmakers wanting to expand penalties to those who call the streets home.

"I feel that's wrong, I feel like it’s against our Constitution. That's just wrong for them to do that to us."

Wilke says there has to be a better solution to helping the homeless.

"If they’re so worried about it, why don’t they take some of these abandoned buildings here in Nashville and turn it into another shelter; open up more shelters for us to be in," Wilke said, "They need to take the time and sit down together and figure out a solution that helps the homeless instead of punishing them for it."

Homeless advocacy groups like Open Table Nashville and ACLU of Tennessee has expressed opposition to the bill.