New Tennessee Law Puts Homeless at Risk of Prison for Camping on Public Land

Tennessee will be the first state in the nation to make camping on public land a felony—punishable with up to six years in prison—when a controversial new law comes into force on July 1.

This creates complications for the unsheltered homeless population amidst the backdrop of an affordable housing crisis.

The fallout from the new legislation will also put added pressure on the state’s rescue missions, especially in cities with a high volume of destitute people such as Nashville.

Shelters statewide work to provide assistance and housing to a community of 7,256 people who lack permanent lodgings.

Nearly 35 percent of that number are living unsheltered and are the group that stands to be most affected by the new law.

Epoch Times Photo
Epoch Times Photo
The skyline of Nashville, Tenn., on April 25, 2019. (Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

In other words, more than 2,500 people could face time in prison if police catch them setting up camp on public or state property.

These include popular areas for tent camps like city parks and green spaces near bike paths and river walks.

“It just [aggravates] the existing challenges for people,” Carrie Gatlin told The Epoch Times.

Gatlin is the vice president of ministries at Nashville Rescue Mission and says the new law SB1610/HB0978—which upgrades camping on public land to a class E felony—will make certain hurdles the homeless are facing even worse.

“Once they have that felony conviction, it makes [finding] housing harder, and it makes getting a job harder,” she said.

Complicating things further is the dire shortage of affordable and low-income housing in Tennessee due to soaring demand and lack of construction from the previous decade.

Vulnerable to Minor Changes

Presently, there’s a scarcity of 127,102 rental units accessible to extremely low income (ELI) earners.

Within the population of renters in Tennessee, 26 percent are classified as ELI households. Further, 67 percent of ELI renters are severely cost burdened by housing, leaving them vulnerable to minor economic changes that can easily end in homelessness.

“Right now, housing is a big issue and there’s not enough of it. Affordable housing doesn’t exist for the people we serve,” Gatlin said.

However, she also made it clear she wasn’t opposing the new law, but rather the felony offense attached to it. Gatlin noted most shelters already have a love-hate relationship with city anti-camping ordinances.

Governor Bill Lee declined a direct endorsement of House Bill 0978, but let it become law without his signature on May 3.

Lee told reporters during a press conference he had concerns over the “unintended consequences” of the bill, but was also worried about things like the “issues of people on public property.”

Regarding homeless trends, some cities in Tennessee have experienced a plateau or decrease in recent months. Meanwhile, other regions in the state, particularly Knoxville and southeastern cities like Chattanooga, are seeing numbers surge since last year.

Homeless Rate Soars 153 per cent

In Knoxville, the population of homeless people has jumped 50 percent since 2021, according to a recent report.

That number soars to a 153 percent increase in southeastern Tennessee, based on data from the Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition (CRHC).

In April, the executive director of the CRHC, Wendy Winters, told reporters that homeless numbers increased this year again, illustrating how devastating the affordable housing crisis is in the southeastern region.

Nate First of Knoxville Homeless Management Information System (Knox HMIS) reiterated the need to address those afflicted by all kinds of homelessness, whether chronic or recent, in a May press release from the mayor’s office.

“Every community’s response to homelessness must address these events at both ends, by housing people who are already homeless as well as by preventing episodes of homelessness before they start,” First said.

Additionally, he added one of the primary factors contributing to homeless trends listed on the Knox HMIS dashboard is “no affordable housing.”

Though Nashville experienced an overall 5 percent decline in displaced people since 2020, vice president of development at the Nashville Rescue Mission Cheryl Chunn told The Epoch Times a lack of low income housing keeps filling shelter beds.

800 People in Shelters Every Night

“We have 800 men, women, and children we take care of every single night. Certainly, our capacity has grown with the struggling economy and housing shortage here in Nashville,” Chunn said.

A 2021 report from the city mayor’s office revealed the Music City needs to create an additional 18,000 affordable housing units for people earning 80 percent of the area’s median income level or lower to address the current crisis.

Yet when it comes to the logistics of how this new law will be enforced, which begins in less than two weeks, police departments are still working out the details.

“The statute is currently under review by the MNPD,” Don Aaron at the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department, told The Epoch Times.

However, a silver lining exists that may help address the need to camp in city parks.

There’s an abundance of work opportunities in Tennessee, which is currently hard pressed for employees in nearly every field.

“On the plus side … there are a ton of jobs out there.  And everybody has been raising their wages and adding sign-on bonuses.

“The job market is plentiful for low wage, medium wage, and skilled people with certifications,” Gatlin said.

Autumn Spredemann

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Autumn is a South America-based reporter covering primarily Latin American issues for The Epoch Times.

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