NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Starting July 1, people experiencing homelessness who sleep on state-owned land could face prison time and heavy fines.
The controversial law has many people concerned about the unhoused community in the area. That’s why several people gathered at Legislative Plaza for a rally and march to Commerce Street Park. Some advocates are planning on sleeping overnight at the park to send a message to lawmakers that homelessness should not be a crime.
The group Open Table Nashville organized the protest. The new law makes it a felony to camp on public property and could lead to up to six years in prison and thousands in fine. It also makes it a misdemeanor to camp under state bridges and overpasses.
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.
"People are afraid there is a lot of uncertainty. There's a lack of communication constantly from people at the top who are making these decisions who are not in close proximity to people who are experiencing homelessness," resource coordinator for Open Table Nashville, Chase Cate, said.
Howard Allen was homeless for 17 years and recently moved into permanent housing. He said this bill targets people like him.
"District Attorney Glenn Funk says he's not going to prosecute what the state does. We don't know. But know we got nowhere to go. So you know, they're going to make it harder when you give us a $3,000 fine. Six years in the penitentiary — the taxpayers are going to have to pay for it. When we get out you're making it awfully, awfully hard to get a job," Allen said.
People in support of the law said stricter punishments are one way to prevent city parks from being overrun by people experiencing homelessness. As the homeless population grows, they think it's one way to deal with the situation.
Allen said the fight to protect the unhoused is just beginning.
"Oh the fat lady hasn't sung. Watch us, watch us," he said.