Governor wants alternatives to homeless camping prohibition despite letting law take effect

By: - June 1, 2022 7:02 am
A homeless man sleeping in downtown Nashville's Church Street Park in 2020. (Photo by John Partipilo for the Tennessee Lookout)

A homeless man sleeping in downtown Nashville’s Church Street Park in 2020. (Photo by John Partipilo for the Tennessee Lookout)

Gov. Bill Lee declined to sign legislation outlawing camping on public property, a measure targeting the homeless population, saying he believes there’s a better solution for dealing with a complex problem.

The governor acknowledges homelessness has been studied thoroughly, yet he maintains he wants to get involved in finding alternatives.

“I want to bring together all the parties. I want to call together the faith leaders, the nonprofits, the government leaders, those who advocate for the homeless who understand the housing challenges and the issues,” Lee says. 

Despite concerns about the bill, Lee allowed the measure to become law without his signature, continuing his refusal to veto legislation.

That means homeless people who sleep on park benches or gather in encampments on public property could be arrested and charged with a felony, based on the legislation championed by Sen. Paul Bailey, a Sparta Republican, and Rep. Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville.

Bill sponsor Sen. Paul Bailey, R-Sparta, says he's seen a recent rise in the population of homeless individuals in his community. (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Bill sponsor Sen. Paul Bailey, R-Sparta, says he’s seen a recent rise in the population of homeless individuals in his community. (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

Bailey’s bill drew heavy criticism during Senate floor debate with opponents arguing it could turn homeless people into felons, making it harder for them to get jobs and turn their lives in a new direction.

In contrast, proponents such as Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville, hailed it as a method for connecting the homeless with more resources and, potentially, government benefits they don’t realize are available.

Lee appears to disagree with that prognosis, as do many advocates for the homeless. But their biggest contention is that criminalizing homelessness is the wrong way to get at the root of the problem.

Bailey says he spoke with the governor about his concerns with the legislation before the 112th General Assembly ended. But he forged ahead with the bill anyway, passing it 22-10 in the Senate. It made it through the House on a 57-28 vote with six present not voting. In both chambers, Republicans voted against the bill.

Bailey defends the Equal Access to Public Property Act, saying it “focuses on public health and safety.” He noted during floor debate that homelessness is a growing problem in his district.

“I have spoken with homeless advocates as well as local law enforcement and officials who support the legislation because it gives them the ability to help those camping on public property access the resources they need to restore their dignity and improve their living situations,” Bailey said in a statement to the Tennessee Lookout. “With more opportunities to get connected with resources, it will help their efforts to get a job, not hurt them.”

Bailey points out the law gives local governments the authority to issue citations. That means different counties and municipalities will determine whether to cite the homeless to court for camping on public land.

He points out, though, that no felony charges have been issued since the Legislature passed the Equal Access to State Property Act in 2012. He argues that the new measure mirrors that 10-year-old law and says, “I do not anticipate the law passed this year to be any different.”

The older law was designed to stop protesters from camping on the War Memorial Plaza across the street from the Capitol Building and was used two years ago to dampen protests during a protracted sit-in along Martin Luther King Boulevard.

This measure creates a Class C misdemeanor offense punishable by a $50 fine and community service work for camping along a controlled-access highway or entrance or exit ramp. It also expands the Public Property Act of 2012, which makes it a Class E felony offense for a person to camp on property owned by the state where camping is prohibited.

The new law baffles homeless advocates, especially in the Nashville area, where officials dedicated a multi-million-dollar project Tuesday for a homeless housing construction project.

Let’s be real. It’s going to take some time for some people to engage because … every person has their own story and their own experiences, and … we need to realize, before somebody’s on the streets there has been usually a big, horrible background story that’s traumatizing.

– Judith Tackett, former director of Metro Nashville Homeless Impact Division

Judith Tackett, who once ran Metro Nashville’s homeless division, is among those trying to figure out why the law is needed. Metro Nashville has about 1,900 homeless people on any given day.

“There are already laws in place. Why did the Legislature feel that they had to slap, now, a family, pretty much making it illegal for people experiencing homelessness to exist?” Tackett says.

Tackett, who hit a wall when she spoke against the legislation during committee, contends it made no sense to further “criminalize” people who are struggling to survive.

“My question is, in general, why? Where are you coming from?” Tackett says. “And so I really appreciate to hear that Gov. Lee is open to working with advocates to implement some solutions.”

Studies show that criminalizing “outdoor” homelessness is not effective, she points out. Instead, “building relationships,” improving outreach and then connecting people to services works better, Tackett says.

Investing in “high-quality street outreach,” with health and mental health services and an emphasis on the most vulnerable, is the best way to take people who live outdoors off the streets, she says.

“Let’s be real. It’s going to take some time for some people to engage because … every person has their own story and their own experiences, and … we need to realize, before somebody’s on the streets there has been usually a big, horrible background story that’s traumatizing. And that trauma needs to be overcome, and that takes time,” she says. “And it can’t be ‘here’s another thing we force you to do so you do what we want you to do.’

“They’ve been through that over and over and over, and somebody always dropped the ball somewhere.”

Responsibility lies with both sides, she adds.

But when housing is available, homeless people will go inside. If someone refuses to take shelter, there are usually extenuating circumstances.

Karen Bowdle, director of communications for Knox Area Rescue Ministries, says her organization doesn’t support the new law, adding that no members of the Knox County legislative delegation contacted her organization for input before voting.

“Because, I guarantee you, hardly anybody had the goal to be outside in an encampment somewhere living in squalor, whatever their circumstances are,” she says.

Knox Area Rescue Ministries, which feeds and houses hundreds of homeless people each day, backs criminal charges against people who may be camping in a prohibited area but are also breaking the law by being drunk and disorderly, using drugs and committing violent behavior.

But it doesn’t support the new law.

“They already have so many barriers to turning their life back around and breaking that cycle of homelessness. You add a felony conviction to that, and it makes that journey even harder,” says Karen Bowdle, director of communications for Knox Area Rescue Ministries.

Felony convictions make it more difficult to find jobs, get housing, cast votes and obtain government benefits such as food stamps, she notes.

“It’s making homelessness a felony in some situations,” she adds. “But it just makes their journey back to not being homeless that much harder.”

Knox Area Rescue Ministries sends ministers into homeless encampments to build relationships with the men and women who live there. But to take them off the streets, a key study shows, they need to have affordable housing, a living wage and strong support.

Otherwise, they won’t break the cycle of homelessness, she says.

Since the first of the year, the ministry has been providing a bed for nearly 400 people a night. They also go through a program to learn to adjust to a new life.

Bowdle acknowledges that some homeless people could find resources and make an adjustment when local authorities raid encampments and arrest them.

However, turning them into criminals is counter-productive, she says.

“They’re not going to be able to pay the fine. What good does a fine do? It’s just another thing on their record,” Bowdle says.

She notes that no Knox County legislators contacted the ministry about the legislation when it surfaced this year, only the media.

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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.