COOKEVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Miranda Atnip lost her home during the coronavirus pandemic after her boyfriend moved out and she fell behind on bills. The 34-year-old lives in the car and worries every day about getting money for food, finding a place to shower and saving enough money for an apartment where her three children can live with her again.
Now she has a new concern: Tennessee is about to become the first US state to criminalize camping on local public property like parks.
“Honestly, it’s going to be tough,” Atnip said of the law, which goes into effect on July 1. “I don’t know where else to go.”
Tennessee made it a crime to camp on most state properties back in 2020. Pushing ahead with the expansion, Senator Paul Bailey noted that no one had been convicted under the law and said he did not expect the law to be heavily enforced. Neither does Luke Eldridge, a man who has worked with homeless people in the city of Cookeville and supports Bailey’s plan – partly because he hopes it will inspire people who care about the homeless to work with him on long-term solutions .
The law requires violators to be notified at least 24 hours before an arrest. The charge of the crime carries a penalty of up to six years in prison and the loss of the right to vote.
“It’s going to be up to the prosecutors…if they want to pronounce a felony,” Bailey said. “But that’s only going to happen if people really don’t want to move.”
After several years of steady decline, homelessness in the United States began to increase in 2017. A survey in January 2020 found for the first time that the number of vulnerable homeless people exceeds those in shelters. The problem was exacerbated by COVID-19 as shelter capacity was limited.
Public pressure to do something about the proliferation of highly visible homeless camps has even prompted many traditionally liberal cities to vacate them. Although camping is generally regulated by local vagrant laws, Texas enacted a statewide ban in the past year. Municipalities that do not enforce the ban risk losing government funds. Several other states have introduced similar laws, but Tennessee is the only one that makes camping a crime.
Bailey’s district includes Cookeville, a city of about 35,000 between Nashville and Knoxville, where the local newspaper is reporting growing concern about the rising number of homeless people. The Herald-Citizen reported last year that complaints about beggars nearly doubled between 2019 and 2020, from 157 to 300. In 2021, the city installed signs urging residents to donate to charities instead of beggars. And the city council twice considered begging bans.
Republican lawmakers acknowledge complaints from Cookeville have caught his attention. City council members have told him that Nashville transports its homeless here, Bailey said. It’s a rumor many in Cookeville have heard, and Bailey seems to believe. When Nashville recently fenced off a downtown park for renovation, the homeless who frequented it disappeared. “Where did you go?” Bailey asked.
Atnip laughed at the idea of people being brought in from Nashville. She was living in nearby Monterey when she lost her home and had to send her children to live with their parents. She received some government help, but not enough to get her back on her feet, she said. Eventually, she got an apartment voucher, but couldn’t find a landlord who would accept it. She and her new husband saved enough to buy a used car and worked as delivery drivers until they broke down. Now she’s afraid they’ll lose the car and have to move into a tent, although she’s not sure where they’ll put it.
“It seems like one thing would go wrong, there would be snowballs,” Atnip said. “We made money with DoorDash. Our bills have been paid. We saved. Then the car breaks down and everything goes bad.”
Eldridge, who has worked with homeless people in Cookeville for a decade, is an unexpected supporter of the camping ban. He said he wants to continue helping the homeless, but some people are not motivated to improve their situation. Some are drug addicts, he said, while others are hiding from law enforcement. Eldridge estimates there are about 60 people living outdoors more or less permanently in Cookeville, and he knows them all.
“Most of them have been here for a number of years and have not once asked for housing assistance,” he said.
Eldridge knows his position is unpopular with other proponents.
“The big problem with this law is that it does nothing to solve homelessness. In fact, it will make the problem worse,” said Bobby Watts, CEO of the National Healthcare for the Homeless Council. “When you have a felony on your record, it’s harder to qualify for some types of housing, harder to find a job, harder to qualify for benefits.”
Not everyone wants to be in a crowded shelter with a curfew, but people will pull off the streets given the right opportunities, Watts said. Homelessness among US military veterans, for example, has been almost halved in the past decade through a combination of housing benefits and welfare payments.
“It’s not magic,” he said. “What works for this population will work for any population.”
Tina Lomax, who runs Seeds of Hope of Tennessee in nearby Sparta, was once homeless with her children. Many people are just a paycheck or tragedy away from hitting the streets, she said. Even in her community of 5,000, affordable housing is very hard to come by.
“If you have a crime on your record — holy smoke!” she said.
Eldridge said, like Sen. Bailey, he doesn’t expect many people to be prosecuted for sleeping on public property. “I can promise they won’t be rounding up homeless people out here,” he said of Cookeville Police. But he doesn’t know what might happen in other parts of the state.
He hopes the new law will spur some of his opponents to work with him on long-term solutions for Cookeville’s homeless. If they all worked together, it would “represent a lot of resources and possible sources of funding to help those in need,” he said.
But other proponents don’t think threatening people with a crime to help them is a good way.
“Criminalizing homelessness just turns people into criminals,” Watts said.