Tenn. bill criminalizing camping on public property to become law after Gov. Lee declines to sign it

Posted at 8:38 AM, May 05, 2022

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has declined to sign off on a bill criminalizing camping by homeless people and others in parks and on other local public property.

But the Republican governor on Tuesday let the bill become law without his signature.

The new law will add local public property to the existing felony penalties that are possible for camping on state property, as long as the place is not designated for people to camp there.

The felony is punishable by up to six years in prison. Felony convictions in Tennessee result in the revocation of an individual’s right to vote.

For perspective, the bill said no one has been convicted over the last five years for the existing law.

"It is assumed that expanding the Equal Access to Public Property Act of 2012 to include local government property will not substantially increase convictions," the bill said.

This new law also adds misdemeanors into the mix for camping on places like highways, under bridges or overpasses. The punishment would be a $50 fine and community service. They must receive a warning citation for this first offense.

"In lieu of a fine and community service, the court may require a person convicted under this section to remove litter from the state or local highway system, public playgrounds,
public parks, or other appropriate public locations for not less than 20 hours nor more than 40 hours," the bill said.

Supporters of the bill talked about preventing city parks from being "overrun" with those experiencing homelessness. Putnam County Sheriff Eddie Farris even testified in support, saying parks in his county are being destroyed.

Open Table Nashville, which works with people experiencing homelessness, called for more support after a hard-fought battle against the law.

"This is pretty difficult for a lot of us in the homeless outreach and advocacy community across the state. We fought really hard. It's also really incredibly difficult for our friends who now have to worry about their existence being criminalized across the state," Lindsey Krinks with Open Table Nashville said.

As of January 2020, Tennessee had more than 7,200 people experiencing homelessness on any given day. More than 2,000 were in Nashville, according to "Nashville's Point In Time Counts."

The law goes into effect July 1st.