Bill to curb homeless camps buried

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This homemade shack provides shelter for a homeless man in the Blackstock Camp downtown. Photo by J.J. Stambaugh

A proposed state law that would have made it a crime to camp on public property anywhere in Tennessee won’t make it to a vote before the full Legislature this year.

The proposed law — SB 1610/HB 978 — failed a vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, according to Fiona McAnally, the City of Knoxville’s director of Legislative Affairs.

“It passed the House but at this point in the legislative session, it is doubtful that it will be raised again in the Senate,” McAnally said. 

The lawmakers were seeking to rewrite a controversial law that was designed to punish liberal protesters by making it illegal to to camp on state property not specifically designated as a campsite. The new bill would have changed the law so that it applied to all “public property” whether owned by the state, county or city governments.

It also would have made panhandling on highways, interstates or on-ramps a Class C misdemeanor and specified that a first-time offender would be issued a warning. Subsequent offenses would be punishable by a $50 fine and community service work.

The dilemmas posed by large numbers of homeless people camping outdoors have proven to be controversial in urban areas like Knoxville and Nashville. The homeless generally congregate in the state’s large cities because of the proximity to shelters and social services. 

In Knoxville, Mayor Indya Kincannon and Police Chief Eve Thomas have pursued a “Housing First” strategy that seeks to find permanent places for the homeless to live and opposes criminalizing homelessness. At the same time, they have dismantled scores of camps in recent months, triggering a furious backlash from some local advocates for the homeless who believe they should be left in peace. 

Sponsored by state Sen. Paul Bailey (R – Sparta) and Rep. Ryan Williams (R – Cookeville), the bill would have had profound implications on how the homeless are treated across Tennessee and might complicate the efforts of local governments to try and end homelessness. 

Sen. Bailey told Hard Knox Wire last month that the “intent of this legislation is to ensure public safety is maintained for all Tennesseans, including the homeless.”

Local homeless advocates said they were glad the measure failed. 

“Good news to hear that the bill to criminalize homelessness found no ‘home’ in the State code,” said Bruce Spangler, CEO of the Volunteer Ministry Center. “Better news, however, will be when concerted efforts coupled with the public policy that makes housing affordable, accessible, and appropriate for all citizens finds a ‘residence’ in Nashville.”

R. Bentley Marlow, a Mechanicsville resident who has criticized City leaders for pursuing ineffectual problems and who supports using law enforcement to crack down on the homeless population, said the bill’s failure was an example of Republicans incompetence.

According to Marlow, the City has chosen to coddle many of the homeless. The result, he says, is a large population living outdoors without sanitation that drives up crime rates. 

“The Republican legislature has now clearly demonstrated that they care more about silencing political dissidents than they care about enforcing public safety, sanitation, and health prerogatives,” he said. “When viewed in totality it’s hard to overlook that our state legislature is intoxicated by the dogma of the far right; like any drunkard they are sloppy; foolish; and downright embarrassing.” 

J.J. can be reached at jjstambaugh@hardknoxwire.com 

Published on March April 23, 2021