Tennessee bill to criminalize camping on public property sparks debate among advocates

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Posted at 6:17 PM, Apr 07, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-07 20:06:04-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Homeless advocates and Brookmeade park neighbors differ on a new bill in the Tennessee General Assembly that would criminalize camping on public property.

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 along a 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.

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.

But one neighborhood group said they hope the new bill under debate will clean up a park they say has turned into an encampment.

"We don't we don't feel like it's equitable for one group to effectively prohibit another group from accessing a taxpayer-funded facility, whether it's a state capitol or city park," said group member Rebecca Lowe.

For years, Lowe has tried going to the city to work solutions to clean up the park. She is the founder of the Facebook group Reclaim Brookmeade Park and Greenway for the People.

Now she's taking her concerns about the problems in the park to the state legislature.

Those who live in the park agree the area has gotten out of control.

"Everything’s has changed there's just new people coming. You know back years ago, it wasn’t like this we had the park clean," said Billy.

Billy has lived in the park on and off for 12 years.

He said being homeless is not a crime, but if they are breaking the law and refuse help, then he can understand the need for a law change.

"You got all those high rises they don’t want to look down and see trash. I mean look at all this. This is awful."

Homeless advocacy group Open Table Nashville opposes the legislation. They said criminalizing homelessness doesn't solve the problem.

"We know criminalizing homelessness is unjust, inhumane, and does nothing to solve homelessness," Open Table Nashville said in a statement. Our unhoused neighbors are already over-policed. If passed, this legislation would further burden our friends on the streets by making it even more difficult to find housing and employment if charged. It also could impact some respected forms of employment such as selling street papers through The Contributor. We know that housing ends homelessness, and we’re asking our elected officials to spend their time and resources advocating for and investing in sustainable solutions to homelessness instead of criminalizing our unhoused friends for merely trying to survive."

The bill passed a Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday 7-2.

It now heads to the Senate calendar for a full vote among its members.

If passed, the bill would take effect July 1.