Anti-camping law passes, future of homeless unclear

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A typical setup at the Blackstock camp. Photo by Hard Knox Wire.

An anti-camping bill dreaded by homeless people and their advocates has become law despite Tennessee Governor Bill Lee’s refusal to sign it. 

The measure — known as House Bill 0978 and Senate Bill 1610 — effectively criminalizes being homeless by making it a crime to sleep on city, county or state property. Prosecutors can even opt to charge campers with a felony, which opens the door for “tough-on-crime” politicians to lock impoverished people up in the state penitentiary for up to three years for being too broke to pay rent.

Those convicted under the law would also lose their rights to vote or own firearms.

“This law will cost Tennessee taxpayers tens of millions of dollars, while doing nothing to boost public safety or to help people prepare to successfully return to their communities. If we want to improve public safety, we need to increase investment in rehabilitation and reentry, not incarceration,” said Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee.

Although Gov. Lee was pressured by other Republicans to back the bill, he ultimately compromised and refused to endorse it but also declined to veto it.

He did, however, make it clear to lawmakers that he had serious reservations about the law in a May 3 letter addressed to Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and Cameron Sexton, Speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives.

“I understand the intent of this legislation to maintain public land and parks for the purpose they were intended. However, criminalizing homeless persons can be a counterproductive response to an issue more appropriately addressed by public, private, nonprofit and faith-based organizations partnering together,” Lee wrote. 

“I am concerned about the unintended consequences, operational costs, and inconsistent enforcement, and we should actively monitor the effects of this legislation,” the governor continued.

It’s not entirely clear what the law’s impact will be locally and, so far at least, Knox law enforcement officials haven’t shown any inclination to shed light on the question.

Knox County District Attorney Charme Allen, for instance, is the local official charged with enforcing state criminal laws, including all felonies. 

She has wide discretion, however, when it comes to which laws are enforced and how aggressively. 

She could, in theory, arrange for all 400-plus poor persons sleeping outdoors to be rounded up for committing a felony crime. Such a move might play well with law-and-order types, but it could also backfire politically in a community that prides itself on Christian values and includes lots of working poor who could be forced into homelessness themselves at any time by skyrocketing property costs.

Allen didn’t respond to a written query sent April 20 asking several questions about the law, including whether she would enforce it. 

Many other questions about the law haven’t been answered, such as whether churches, missions, social workers or private citizens can be prosecuted for aiding a homeless person for, say, pitching a tent in a park. 

Various versions of the legislation had failed in the General Assembly in previous years, but this time around its sponsors managed to convince a clear majority of lawmakers that poor people camping in public should be treated the same as rapists or drug traffickers.

Bizarrely, the bill’s sponsors — Republican legislators Rep. Ryan Williams of Cookeville and Sen. Paul Bailey of Sparta — argued the law would help homeless people gain access to social services and housing. They appeared to be unaware that felony convictions can actually make someone ineligible for some government programs or housing options designed to help the homeless.

In one particularly surreal moment during discussions on the Senate floor, Sen. Frank Nicely, a Republican from Strawberry Plains, seemed to argue that homeless people should emulate Adolf Hitler.

“In 1910, Hitler decided to live on the streets for a while,” Nicely said. “So for two years, Hitler lived on the streets and practiced his oratory and body language and how to connect with the masses and then went on to lead a life that got him in the history books. So a lot of these people, it’s not a dead-end. They can come out of this.”

Not one of Knox’s three senators — Randy McNally, Richard Briggs or Becky Massey — have returned calls from Hard Knox Wire seeking comment as to why they voted for the bill.

Based on numerous on- and off-the-record discussions with sources in Knoxville and Knox County government, the three senators representing the area never consulted with local elected officials about the law.

City officials, who have come under attack both for “cleaning up” homeless camps and for not destroying enough of them, have consistently pushed for more services and affordable housing units. They have also opposed criminalizing homelessness as a matter of policy although they refrained from criticizing the bill publicly while it was pending.

Knox’s senators also never sought advice from some of the most prominent figures among Knox County’s extensive community of homeless service providers — such as the leaders of Knox County Rescue Ministries (KARM) or the Volunteer Ministry Center (VMC). 

Bruce Spangler, executive director of VMC, recently argued the only sensible solution to the problem is to drastically increase the number of affordable housing units, explained that enforcing the law will make it much harder for the homeless to find permanent housing.

“When the real issue is about the lack of affordable housing, access to safe and sustainable behavioral and health care, (the bill) is just to punish people for being ill, struggling, and poor,” he said. “Definitely, it gives new meaning to the ‘War on Poverty!’”

Burt Rosen, CEO of KARM, agreed with many of Spangler’s observations but also concurred with the City that the camps are dangerous.  

“While we agree that many of the homeless encampments are unsafe, we don’t believe this bill will accomplish its intent to protect the homeless and, in fact, may add to existing challenges for the individual,” Rosen said. “While not advocating for no enforcement of legal statutes, the goal is not to punish, but rather to help each person.  Jail and/or fines is not the solution to this growing challenge.”

J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at jjstambaugh@hardknoxwire.com.

Published on May 6, 2022.