Public camping about to become a felony in TN

COOKEVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – Miranda Atnip lost her home during the coronavirus pandemic after her boyfriend moved out and she fell short of bills. Living in a car, the 34-year-old worries daily about earning money to eat, find somewhere to shower, and save enough money to buy an apartment where her three children can live with her alone. Again.

Now she has a new worry: Tennessee is about to become the first US state to make camping on local public properties like parks a felony.

Atnip said of the law, which takes effect July 1. “Honestly, it’s going to be tough.” I didn’t know where to go. ”

Tennessee made it a felony in 2020 camping on most state-owned properties. In pushing for the expansion, Senator Paul Bailey noted that no one has been convicted under that law and said he also doesn’t expect this to be enforced much. So does Luke Eldridge, who has worked with homeless people in Cookeville and supports Bailey’s plan – in part because he hopes it will motivate people who care about homelessness to work with the homeless. about long-term solutions.

The law requires violators to receive at least 24 hours notice before being arrested. The crime carries a penalty of up to six years in prison and loss of voting rights.

“It will be up to the prosecutors… if they want to bring a felony,” Bailey said. “But it will only come if people really don’t want to move.”

After several years of steady decline, homelessness in the United States began to increase in 2017. A January 2020 survey found that for the first time, the number of homeless people exceeded the number of people elsewhere. staying. The problem has been exacerbated by COVID-19, with bunkers having limited capacity.

Public pressure to do something about the growing number of clearly visible homeless encampments has prompted many traditionally free cities to clear them. Although camping is often regulated by vague local laws, Texas passed a statewide ban last year. Cities that do not enforce the ban risk losing state funds. Several other states have introduced similar bills, but Tennessee is the only state that makes camping a felony.

Bailey County includes Cookeville, a city of about 35,000 people located between Nashville and Knoxville, where the local newspaper has documented growing concern with the growing number of homeless people. The Herald-Citizen reported last year that complaints about bread vendors almost doubled between 2019 and 2020, from 157 to 300. In 2021, the city installed Signs encourage people to donate to charities instead of bread vendors. And City Council has twice reviewed panhandling bans.

The Republican lawmaker acknowledged that complaints from Cookeville had caught his attention. City council members told him Nashville moved homeless people here, Bailey said. It was a rumor many in Cookeville had heard and Bailey seemed to believe. Recently, when Nashville fenced off a downtown park for renovations, the homeless people who frequented it disappeared. “Where did they go?” Bailey asked.

Atnip laughs at the idea of ​​people being transported from Nashville. She was living in nearby Monterey when she lost her home and had to send her children to live with her parents. She got some help from the government, but not enough to get her back on her feet, she said. At one point, she received a voucher to buy a house but couldn’t find a landlord to accept it. She and her new husband had saved enough to buy a used car and were working as a delivery driver until it broke down. Now she’s afraid they’ll lose their car and have to move to a tent, though she’s not sure where they’ll put it.

“It looks like once something goes wrong, it’s going to be like snowballs,” Atnip said. “We made money with DoorDash. Our bill has been paid. We saved. Then the car broke down and things went awry.”

Eldridge, who has worked with the homeless in Cookeville for a decade, is an unexpected supporter of the camping ban. He said he wanted to continue helping the homeless, but some were not motivated to improve their situation. Some people are addicted to drugs, he said, and some are hiding from law enforcement. Eldridge estimates there are about 60 people permanently living outside in Cookeville, and he knows them all.

“Most of them have been here a few years, and not once have they asked for help with housing,” he said.

Eldridge knew his position was unpopular with other supporters.

“The big problem with this law is that it doesn’t address homelessness. In fact, it will make the problem worse,” said Bobby Watts, CEO of the National Council on Health Care for the Homeless. “Having a felony on your record makes it harder to qualify for certain types of housing, harder to get a job, harder to qualify for benefits.”

Not everyone wants to be in a crowded shelter with a curfew, but people will move off the streets if given the right opportunity, Watts said. For example, homelessness among U.S. military veterans has been nearly cut in half over the past decade through a combination of subsidized housing and social services.

“It’s not magic,” he said. “What works for that population, works for all populations.”

Tina Lomax, who ran Seeds of Hope of Tennessee in nearby Sparta, was once homeless with her children. Many people are just a payback or an accident on the street, she said. Even in her community of 5,000, affordable housing is hard to come by.

“If you have a felony on your record – smoke holy!” she speaks.

Eldridge, as well as Senator Bailey, said he did not expect many people to be prosecuted for sleeping on public property. “I can promise, they’re not here to round up the homeless,” he said of Cookeville law enforcement. But he doesn’t know what might happen in other parts of the state.

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He hopes the new law will spur some of his opponents to work with him on lasting solutions for homelessness in Cookeville. If they all work together, that means “a lot of resources and possible funding sources to support those in need,” he said.

But other advocates don’t think threatening people with felonies is a good way to help them.

“Criminalization of homelessness just makes people criminals,” says Watts. Public camping about to become a felony in TN

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