Law would make homeless camping a crime

A homeless camp under the Interstate 40 overpass near downtown Knoxville on April 4. This is exactly the kind of settlement that state lawmakers want to make illegal. All photos by J.J. Stambaugh unless otherwise specified.

A proposed state law would make it a crime to camp on public property anywhere in Tennessee, effectively criminalizing the types of homeless camps that have sprung up across Knoxville in recent years.

It also would make it illegal to panhandle along or near highways and interstates.

 Sponsored by state Sen. Paul Bailey (R – Sparta) and Rep. Ryan Williams (R – Cookeville), the bill would have profound implications on how the homeless are treated across Tennessee and might complicate the efforts of local governments to try and end homelessness. 

The lawmakers are seeking to rewrite the Equal Access to Public Property Act of 2012, widely criticized at the time of its passing as a way to punish liberal protesters. As written today, the Act makes it a Class A misdemeanor (such as DUI or simple assault) to camp on state property not specifically designated as a campsite. The new bill would change the law so that it applies to all “public property” whether it’s owned by the state, county or city governments.

It also would make panhandling on highways, interstates or on-ramps a Class C misdemeanor and specifies that a first-time offender would be issued a warning. Subsequent offenses would be punishable by a $50 fine and community service work.

“The intent of this legislation is to ensure public safety is maintained for all Tennesseans, including the homeless,” Sen. Bailey said in a Monday night e-mail. Williams didn’t return a phone call seeking comment. 

“Strangle a few puppies?”

The dilemmas posed by large numbers of homeless people camping outdoors have proven to be controversial in urban areas like Knoxville and Nashville. The homeless generally congregate in large cities because of the proximity to shelters and social services. Bailey and Williams, however, represent largely rural districts where homeless people are rarely visible.

In Knoxville, Mayor Indya Kincannon and Police Chief Eve Thomas have pursued a “Housing First” strategy that seeks to find permanent places for the homeless to live and opposes criminalizing homelessness. At the same time, they have dismantled scores of camps in recent months, triggering a furious backlash from some local advocates for the homeless who believe they should be left in peace.

Chris Irwin. Source: Facebook

One of the most vocal critics of the policy of clearing out camps has been Chris Irwin, a criminal defense attorney for the Public Defender’s office and longtime activist. When asked about the bill introduced in the Legislature, Irwin gave an indignant response accusing “rich legislative people” of using tax dollars to inflict pain and suffering on the poor in a cynical exchange for conservative votes.

“They are criminalizing being poor,” Irwin said. “First they did it with the First Amendment-killing camping  bill. Now they are doing it to homeless vets with PTSD, domestic violence victims and the mentally ill. What’s next on their list? Dropping by the animal shelters to strangle a few puppies?”

Irwin continued: “It’s ironic that rich people doing this to poor people mostly call themselves Christians, when if Jesus came back I’m pretty sure He would be one of those they are trying to criminalize. They better pray the atheists are right, otherwise attacking the poor like that would be a straight ticket to Hell.”

Bruce Spangler, who heads the Volunteer Ministry Center, was also critical (if somewhat less incendiary) in his response to the proposed legislation.

“Far too often there is a focus on the problem without a focus on a solution,” he said. “Whereas the proposed bill identifies a ‘problem,’ it does nothing to address the experience of homelessness.  Without solutions, such intended bills will ‘criminalize’ the experience of homelessness.  

“Instead of assuming the pathology is with the person experiencing homelessness, the question that needs to be why the system ‘creates and perpetuates’ such an experience.   Homelessness is not addressed until housing is part of both the conversation and solution.”

“Nothing short of hogwash”

R. Bentley Marlow, a Mechanicsville resident who fixes up houses in his neighborhood for sale or rent, has been a vocal critic of those who believe the homeless should be allowed to make themselves comfortable on the streets. He is especially angry at the level of crime and unsanitary conditions that large numbers of the homeless bring with them and has lashed out at police for not vigorously enforcing criminal laws that are already on the books. 

“Reading the plain language of the statute it seems entirely reasonable …. This bill aims to broaden definitions to make the law plainly understandable and more readily enforceable,” Marlow said.

He added: “I’ll also point out that the statute instructs that a first offense will be issued merely a warning.  So any argument that this is attempting to criminalize the homeless arbitrarily is nothing short of hogwash in my opinion.”

Mechanicsville resident R. Bentley Marlow is fed up with the filth and the danger that accompanies the homeless people who live in his neighborhood.

Hard Knox Wire sent out emails over the weekend seeking comment from each member of City Council. Only two of them responded.

“Enforcement of this bill is unrealistic,” wrote Lauren Rider, who represents the 4th District. “It makes a lot more sense to focus energy and resources on the root causes of homelessness. More housing, addiction treatment/healthcare/mental healthcare.”

“It is astounding that there is consideration of making the Bible the state book while considering such immoral legislation,” said 3rd District council person Seema Singh.

A KPD spokesman said the agency didn’t wish to comment on pending legislation. 

Fiona McAnally, the City’s director of Legislative Affairs, said she wasn’t familiar with the proposed law and therefore didn’t wish to comment on it.

“Just leave us alone”

But what of the homeless themselves?

Under the I-40 overpass alongside Broadway lies Knoxville’s oldest and largest homeless encampment. No one seems to know exactly how many times KPD officers have cleared out the tenacious groups of men and women who return after every sweep, their cynicism thickening like scar tissue after each encounter. 

On Sunday, perhaps 30 people were crouched in tents or leaning against I-40’s massive concrete supports. Trash lay scattered throughout the ad hoc campground, and one young lady hit herself in the arm with a syringe in plan view of anyone who cared to look.

None of them had heard about the proposed law. When shown a copy of the bill on a cell phone, however, the reaction was immediate and blunt.

“Such bullshit,” spat Henry Kenner, who was killing time on the unseasonably hot afternoon by playing poker along with two other men and two women. Crouched on lawn chairs around an ancient cardboard box that looked as though it had once held a dishwasher or similar appliance, the group was noticeably hesitant to speak and flat-out refused to be photographed. 

Kenner repeated the phrase “bullshit” three more times before waving over a much younger man who introduced himself as Maurice Farmer, the camp’s designated liaison with the outside world. 

“What do they expect us to do?” Farmer asked rhetorically after reading the bill. “What do they want us to do? We’re not hurting anybody down here. We just want to be left alone down here. … They don’t know how hard living like this everyday is. You don’t know what ‘hard’ even means until everything you have is thrown away by the police the day after you get it, just a day after the good people of Knoxville came down here and gave it to you. Do you know how much it costs to do that shit, to just give it away and then throw it away the next day? 

“Just leave us alone, man. We’re not starting shit with anyone else. They need to just leave us alone.” 

A homeless man sits on a bucket and washes his feet at the camp under the I-40 overpass at Broadway.

J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at 

Published on April 6, 2021