Tennessee tackling homelessness: Camping in certain areas could result in a felony charge

Published: Aug. 10, 2022 at 2:42 PM AKDT
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (CNN) - Homelessness is a rising concern across the country. Some states are trying a new approach, basically making homelessness a crime.

Tennessee just became the first state in the nation to brand pitching a tent on public land that’s not actually a campsite a felony.

“We’re out here, homeless. We’re trying to struggle to make it and they’re just trying to make it worse on all of us by criminalizing it,” said Momma V., an unhoused Nashville resident.

The unhoused residents said it would make finding a job or a home even harder.

“This bill requires law enforcement to give a documented warning for the first incident, and any punishment after that is up to the district attorney’s prosecutorial discretion,” Sen. Paul Bailey said, the bill’s sponsor.

In Missouri, a similar law takes effect this month. A misdemeanor, not a felony, but local governments that don’t enforce the camping ban can be punished.

Officials say money that was earmarked to build permanent housing must instead be used to fund treatment programs and build state-sanctioned temporary homeless camps.

“This is a push to put the most vulnerable people into internment camps,” said Eric Tars with the National Homelessness Law Center.

Similar bills are being considered in Arizona and Georgia.

“We’re sitting right on the tipping point right now,” Tars said.

In Oklahoma and Wisconsin, similar bills were introduced but failed.

And those similarities are no coincidence. They’re all based on a model bill produced by the Cicero Institute, a think tank in Austin, Texas, funded by a tech billionaire.

Texas passed a version of Cicero’s bill last year.

“We have no influence except the power of persuasion. We’re merely saying, here seems to be a better idea. We know what’s not working,” said Judge Glock with the Cicero Institute.

“Housing First” has become the primary approach to tackling homelessness: Get someone an actual home, not a shelter bed.

Offer but don’t mandate addiction treatment, and the rest should follow. Many studies support the approach. Cicero does not.

“We don’t have decades to wait to build up brand new houses for every one of those people. We need to have a solution that’s acting right now,” Glock said. “Homeless encampments are bad for the homeless themselves.”

Nashville resident Becky Lowe said nothing has worked at her local park.

“Nothing has been working. Nothing has worked,” Lowe said.

She said she now supports the stick approach – the threat of a felony conviction for just camping.

However, others say the treatment they have received once at a temporary shelter has not been good.

“I was in a temporary shelter and not treated as a human being,” said Howard Allen, co-founder of Nashville Homeless Underground. “When I moved into my house I cried. I cried because my brothers and sisters deserve the same thing I have – housing.”

Homelessness is also a significant problem in California. On Tuesday, the Los Angeles City Council voted to ban camping within 500 feet of day care centers and schools in the city.

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