NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — On July 1, a new law goes into effect that will make camping on public property a felony in Tennessee.
Many argue the law directly targets the homeless population and will force them to relocate.
At Brookemeade Park in West Nashville, a homeless camp has overtaken the property. There are needles and trash visible from the road.
“We do not feel safe in this park,” neighbor Dede Byrd said.
Neighbors like Byrd and Rebecca Lowe have been working toward a solution at Brookemeade Park for months: clean up the park and safely rehouse the homeless.
Lowe even testified to lawmakers at the Tennessee State Capitol.
“I started a coalition of neighbors who not only wanted to enjoy our park again, but also wanted to make sure that the people who somehow have been allowed to live there would be compassionately helped and housed. And I called the group ‘Reclaim Brookemeade Park,'” Lowe said.
The new law that’s set to be put into place in less than a month may force those homeless people out of Brookemeade Park, but it could then land them behind bars.
House Bill 978 passed the house and senate but was not signed by Governor Bill Lee.
“One of the reasons that I didn’t sign that bill was because I do think there’s a better way and I want to be a part of that solution,” Governor Lee said.
The law creates a class ‘C’ misdemeanor if a person camps on or near a state roadway and makes it a felony to camp on public property, like parks.
“I want to bring together all the parties. I want to call together the faith leaders, the non-profits, the governmental leaders, those who advocate for the homeless, those who understand the housing challenges and the issues,” Governor Lee said.
Byrd says the law could be a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t solve the underlying problem and ultimately criminalizes the homeless.
“There has to be a safe space to put them. We don’t want them just to scatter and go somewhere else. We want them to get the assistance they need to be a healthy individual and to be able to give back to a community,” Byrd said.
Police and district attorneys will have the authority to decide who is arrested and prosecuted.
News 2 reached out to the Metro Nashville Police Department on Thursday to ask how they plan to enforce the new law. We did not immediately receive a response.
The Metro Nashville Homeless Impact Division Interim Director, Jay Servais, sent News 2 the following statement regarding the new law:
“We remain housing and service focused. We know that the best, most humane and effective way to treat homelessness is to address the critical needs of the person experiencing homelessness and to hold their hand while and even after they overcome those barriers. Our office has been talking with our community partners and meeting with city leaders regarding the new law that goes into effect July 1. Our department does not have arresting nor prosecuting power. However, we do have the ability to address our client’s needs and get them in an environment where they are not vulnerable to being arrested. We have boosted our efforts to coordinate housing and support services for those who are unhoused as the new law approaches. Further, it is my hope that Mayor Cooper’s proposed $50 million investment for homelessness is approved. This investment will mean more resources and funding that will significantly advance our approach to this community issue.”