NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) — The Tennessee House on Monday gave the green light for a bill that penalizes those experiencing homelessness for sleeping or camping on public property.
The bill, which passed 57-28-6 and is co-sponsored by Rep. Tim Hicks (R-Gray), would make camping along a controlled-access highway, entrance or exit ramp a Class C misdemeanor punishable by a “either a $50 fine and a sentence to 20-40 hours of community service work, or a sentence of 20-40 hours of litter removal.”
The recently passed bill also prohibits people from soliciting or camping on bridges, overpasses and underpasses.
This expands on the Equal Access to Public Property Act of 2012, which made it a Class E felony to camp on state-owned property. The bill expands upon this, making this felony applicable “to all public property rather than only state-owned property.”
“It’s a safety issue,” Hicks said. “[Those experiencing homelessness] tend to camp in a lot of places, on our right-of-ways, and if you’ll notice, it’s off of our interstates because that is public property; it’s owned by the county or the city.
“They can’t camp on anything right now that’s state-owned. But, typically when they’re that close to the interstate, we’re having some fatalities because of this issue.”
Hicks believes the bill would increase interactions between law enforcement and people experiencing homelessness and that those interactions with police would “offer them help.”
“This bill allows people, law enforcement to be able to go up to someone and tell them that they’re breaking the law,” Hicks said. “The first time will be a warning, tell them that they’re breaking the law — they can’t camp here — and offer them help. That is exactly what we’re trying to do with this bill.
“If we sit on our hands and do nothing about this issue and wait on the homeless to take care of themselves, it’s going to continue to get worse. This is a tool that our cities and counties can do in order to get these folks help.”
However, homeless advocates oppose the bill and point out the lack of resources for those experiencing homelessness.
“You know, we are in the Bible Belt, and you’d think we wouldn’t have these kinds of problems,” said Steve Wells, the lay leader for Shades of Grace in Kingsport.
Advocacy groups and churches like Shades of Grace described the bill as out-of-touch.
“If you are going to sit here and complain about them and put these restrictions on them, you should have an answer for them,” Wells said. “You should have a place for them.”
Mark, a man who has lived under a bridge in Kingsport for 10 months, believes the vulnerability of those experiencing homelessness is what makes people like him easy targets.
“You can kick a person down and just keep kicking him and kicking him, but don’t do that, you know,” Mark said. “Life is precious.”
Another church leader whose congregation volunteers to provide food for those experiencing homelessness called the bill illogical.
“To think that you are going to get $50 from them for sleeping in a public place is not realistic, and the jails are already overrun and filled, so how’s that going to work?” asked Will Shewey, the pastor of Shades of Grace.
Hicks brought up a facet of the bill, however, that would give those experiencing homelessness who are cited another option rather than the $50 fine — community service.
“The bill also says ‘or community service,’ and that’s the key to the bill,” he said. “It’s hard for law enforcement to get these folks help unless you start making contact with them. That’s really what this bill is all about. I think it’s a good bill. I think it’s something that needs to happen because in Tennessee, [homelessness] is getting worse.”
The House-passed bill will now make its way to Gov. Bill Lee’s desk.