NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) — Despite not having the signature of Gov. Bill Lee, a bill passed by the Tennessee House and Senate that would make camping on all public property illegal is now state law.
SB1610 expanded the Equal Access to Public Property Act of 2012 to include city and county public property. It previously only included state and private property. Camping on any public property not designated for camping use is now a Class E felony in Tennessee.
The law also makes soliciting or camping alongside roadways or bridges illegal as a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by a $50 fine or community service.
Major Richard Watts of the Johnson City Salvation Army said his shelter has seen an increase in its homeless population over the last year. He believed this law would only make it more difficult for homeless people to get back on their feet.
“We’re running at about 10 to 12 percent above last year as far as the number of night’s lodging and we’re running about 30 percent greater meals,” Watts said. “While I understand the frustration that people have when dealing with homelessness, I don’t think this is an effective way to deal with the problem.”
The governor did not sign the bill, but passage in both houses of the Tennessee General Assembly make it law anyway.
Lee said he had concerns about “unintended consequences” with the bill and said it may have to be changed.
“I was concerned and am concerned about the unintended consequences so I let the bill go into law, and we will follow up and work with the sponsors to understand the implications and see if there are adjustments that need to be made,” Lee said.
Those consequences include a possible increase in prison populations due to the felony penalties for homeless people camping illegally, Lee said.
The governor said the intent of the law was to use the state’s parks and city property as originally intended.
Lee said he’d like to pursue partnerships with non-profit organizations to better combat homelessness.
“Government has a responsibility to partner with these non-profits with churches with groups that are advocacy groups for the homeless to find a way forward, that’s what I want to see happen in our state,” Lee said.
Johnson City Commissioner and CEO of Good Samaritan Ministries Aaron T. Murphy called on lawmakers to re-think their position on the law. He said criminalization provides little to no opportunity for homeless people to get off the streets.
“We feel that it’s important to put our neighbors in positions of success,” Murphy said. “If homelessness is illegal, then how do we position people so that they’re not breaking the law?”
Johnson City Salvation Army does require background checks prior to entry to its homeless shelter but said people convicted under this law would still be allowed inside.