With public camping a crime, homeless in Tennessee seek refuge

COOKEVILLE, Tenn. — Miranda Atnip lost her home during the coronavirus pandemic after her boyfriend moved out and she fell behind on her bills. Living in a car, the 34-year-old worries every day about finding money for food, somewhere to shower and saving enough money for an apartment where her three children can go again live with her.

Now she has a new worry: Tennessee is about to become the first US state to make it a crime to camp on local public property such as parks.

“Honestly, it’s going to be tough,” Atnip said of the law, which goes into effect July 1. “I do not know where to go.”

Tennessee has already made it a crime in 2020 to camp on most state-owned properties. Pushing the expansion, Senator Paul Bailey noted that no one has been convicted under this law and said he also does not expect much enforcement. Neither does Luke Eldridge, a man who has worked with homeless people in the town of Cookeville and supports Bailey’s plan – partly because he hopes it will inspire people who care about the homeless to work with him. on long-term solutions.

The law requires that offenders receive at least 24 hours notice before an arrest. The felony charge carries a sentence of up to six years in prison and loss of the right to vote.

“It’ll be up to prosecutors … if they want to pronounce a felony,” Bailey said. “But that will only happen if people really don’t want to move.”

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

Public pressure to do something about the growing number of highly visible homeless encampments has prompted even many traditionally liberal cities to clean them up. Although camping is generally regulated by local vagrancy laws, Texas passed a statewide ban last year. Municipalities that violate the ban risk losing state funding. Several other states have introduced similar bills, but Tennessee is the only one to make camping a crime.

The Bailey District includes Cookeville, a town of about 35,000 between Nashville and Knoxville, where the local newspaper reported growing concern over growing numbers of homeless people. The Herald-Citizen reported last year that complaints about beggars nearly doubled between 2019 and 2020, from 157 to 300. In 2021, the city put up signs encouraging residents to donate to charity instead than to beggars. And the city council twice considered banning begging.

The Republican lawmaker acknowledges that Cookeville’s complaints caught his attention. City council members told him that Nashville ships its homeless here, Bailey said. It’s a rumor many in Cookeville have heard and Bailey seems to believe. When Nashville recently closed a downtown park for renovation, the homeless people who frequented it disappeared. “Where did they go?” Bailey asked.

Atnip laughed at the idea of ​​people being shipped out of Nashville. She was living near Monterey when she lost her home and had to send her children to live with her parents. She received government aid, but not enough to get her back on her feet, she said. At one point, she got a housing voucher but couldn’t find a landlord who would accept her. She and her new husband saved enough to finance a used car and worked as delivery drivers until it broke down. Now she’s afraid they’ll lose the car and have to move to a tent, though she doesn’t know where they’ll pitch it.

“It seems like once one thing goes wrong, it snowballs,” Atnip said. “We were making money with DoorDash. Our bills were paid. We were saving. Then the car goes kaput and everything goes wrong.

Eldridge, who has worked with homeless people in Cookeville for a decade, is an unexpected advocate for the camping ban. He said he wanted to continue helping the homeless, but some people aren’t motivated to improve their situation. Some are drug addicts, he said, and some are hiding from law enforcement. Eldridge estimates that there are about 60 people living away more or less permanently in Cookeville, and he knows them all.

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

Eldridge knows his position is unpopular with other defenders.

“The big problem with this law is that it does nothing to solve homelessness. In fact, it will make the problem worse,” said Bobby Watts, CEO of the National Healthcare for the Homeless Council. “Having a felony on your record makes it harder to get certain types of housing, harder to get a job, harder to qualify for benefits.”

Not everyone wants to be in an overcrowded shelter with a curfew, but people will leave the streets if the right opportunities present themselves, Watts said. Homelessness among US military veterans, for example, has been cut nearly in half over the past decade through a combination of housing subsidies and social services.

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

Tina Lomax, who runs Seeds of Hope of Tennessee in nearby Sparta, was once homeless with her children. Many people are just a paycheck or tragedy away from being on the streets, she said. Even in his community of 5,000 people, finding affordable housing is very difficult.

“If you have a crime on your record – holy smoke!” she says.

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

He hopes the new law will inspire some of his opponents to work with him on long-term solutions for Cookeville’s homeless people. If they all worked together, it would mean “lots of resources and possible funding sources to help those in need,” he said.

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

“Criminalizing homelessness makes people criminal,” Watts said.

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