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With public camping a felony, Tennessee homeless seek refuge


Associated Press

COOKEVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Miranda Atnip lost her home during the coronavirus pandemic after her boyfriend moved out and she fell behind on bills. Living in a car, the 34-year-old worries every day about getting money for food, finding somewhere to shower, and saving up enough money for an apartment where her three children can live with her again.

Now she has a new worry: Tennessee is about to become the first U.S. state to make it a felony to camp on local public property such as parks.

“Honestly, it’s going to be hard,” Atnip said of the law, which takes effect July 1. “I don’t know where else to go.”

Tennessee already made it a felony in 2020 to camp on most state-owned property. In pushing the expansion, Sen. Paul Bailey noted that no one has been convicted under that law and said he doesn’t expect this one to be enforced much, either. Neither does Luke Eldridge, a man who has worked with homeless people in the city of Cookeville and supports Bailey’s plan — in part because he hopes it will spur people who care about the homeless to work with him on long-term solutions.

The law requires that violators receive at least 24 hours notice before an arrest. The felony charge is punishable by up to six years in prison and the loss of voting rights.

“It’s going to be up to prosecutors … if they want to issue a felony,” Bailey said. “But it’s only going to come to that if people really don’t want to move.”

After several years of steady decline, homelessness in the United States began increasing in 2017. A survey in January 2020 found for the first time that the number of unsheltered homeless people exceeded those in shelters. The problem was exacerbated by COVID-19, with shelters limiting capacity.

Public pressure to do something about the increasing number of highly visible homeless encampments has pushed even many traditionally liberal cities to clear them. Although camping has generally been regulated by local vagrancy laws, Texas passed a statewide ban last year. Municipalities that fail to enforce the ban risk losing state funding. Several other states have introduced similar bills, but Tennessee is the only one to make camping a felony.

Bailey’s district includes Cookeville, a city of about 35,000 people between Nashville and Knoxville, where the local newspaper has chronicled growing concern with the increasing number of homeless people. The Herald-Citizen reported last year that complaints about panhandlers nearly doubled between 2019 and 2020, from 157 to 300. In 2021, the city installed signs encouraging residents to give to charities instead of panhandlers. And the City Council twice considered panhandling bans.

The Republican lawmaker acknowledges that complaints from Cookeville got his attention. City council members have told him that Nashville ships its homeless here, Bailey said. It’s a rumor many in Cookeville have heard and Bailey seems to believe. When Nashville fenced off a downtown park for renovation recently, the homeless people who frequented it disappeared. “Where did they go?” Bailey asked.

Atnip laughed at the idea of people shipped in from Nashville. She was living in nearby Monterey when she lost her home and had to send her children to live with her parents. She has received some government help, but not enough to get her back on her feet, she said. At one point she got a housing voucher but couldn’t find a landlord who would accept it. She and her new husband saved enough to finance a used car and were working as delivery drivers until it broke down. Now she’s afraid they will lose the car and have to move to a tent, though she isn’t sure where they will pitch it.

“It seems like once one thing goes wrong, it kind of snowballs,” Atnip said. “We were making money with DoorDash. Our bills were paid. We were saving. Then the car goes kaput and everything goes bad.”

Eldridge, who has worked with Cookeville’s homeless for a decade, is an unexpected advocate of the camping ban. He said he wants to continue helping the homeless, but some people aren’t motivated to improve their situation. Some are addicted to drugs, he said, and some are hiding from law enforcement. Eldridge estimates there are about 60 people living outside more or less permanently in Cookeville, and he knows them all.

“Most of them have been here a few years, and not once have they asked for housing help,” he said.

Eldridge knows his position is unpopular with other advocates.

“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. “Having a felony on your record makes it hard to qualify for some types of housing, harder to get a job, harder to qualify for benefits.”

Not everyone wants to be in a crowded shelter with a curfew, but people will move off the streets given the right opportunities, Watts said. Homelessness among U.S. military veterans, for example, has been cut nearly in half over the past decade through a combination of housing subsidies and social services.

“It’s not magic,” he said. “What works for that population, works for every population.”

Tina Lomax, who runs Seeds of Hope of Tennessee in nearby Sparta, was once homeless with her children. Many people are just one paycheck or one tragedy away from being on the streets, she said. Even in her community of 5,000, affordable housing is very hard to come by.

“If you have a felony on your record — holy smokes!” she said.

Eldridge, like Sen. Bailey, said he doesn’t expect many people to be prosecuted for sleeping on public property. “I can promise, they’re not going to be out here rounding up homeless people,” he said of Cookeville law enforcement. But he doesn’t know what might happen in other parts of the state.

He hopes the new law will spur some of its opponents to work with him on long-term solutions for Cookeville’s homeless. If they all worked together it would mean “a lot of resources and possible funding sources to assist those in need,” he said.

But other advocates don’t think threatening people with a felony is a good way to help them.

“Criminalizing homelessness just makes people criminals,” Watts said.

Associated Press



      1. Well your leaders have been saying they’re going to solve all our problems for decades and infact all they’ve done is compound everything. Those are just the facts.

  1. “In 2021, the city installed signs encouraging residents to give to charities instead of panhandlers. And the City Council twice considered panhandling bans.”

    Bend CC should implement a panhandling ban.

      1. So mail the feds/state more money rather than give to a charity?
        It is not the governments job to “care” for us. It’s their job to secure and protect the US, and they are failing miserably.

        1. “It is not the governments job to “care” for us.”

          Of course it is. Look at the countries which have figured this out, then look at us. A government exists to see to the needs of its people and to protect them from threats, and that includes the predations of an unchecked private sector.

          1. So I’ll ask you this…what exactly is one personally responsible for in their lives? If government is responsible for our “care”, then what are we responsible for other than funding that very government?

            1. Nothingburger… nailed it! Besides funding their instrument of control, our Only responsibility is to think, say, and do, whatever the democrat media, big tech, and the entitled ruling elite say.

          1. Laws deter illegal behavior, if enforced. It won’t take very many people getting arrested to slow down or stop the problem. They’ll move on to a place where the behavior is encouraged, like Oregon.

            1. It will take jails full of people to deter others. The idea that you can arrest 2 or 3 and the rest will leave is… unrealistically optimistic. Why would they leave if you’re only going to arrest a few?

              1. I didn’t say 2 or 3, but you already knew that. Is your alternative to ignore/allow the problem to get worse, or better yet..encourage it? Here’s a guess…you don’t see homelessness as something that can be dealt with any other way than throwing money at it, thus making it easier. News flash, making something easier doesn’t make it go away. Make addiction treatment available for those who choose it and mental health care available for those who are willing. That, along with consequences for the rest is the best we can do.

                1. You look at places that have had good results and copy them. Rocket science, right?

                  Seriously, taxpayers in Tennessee are going to be paying hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of dollars per homeless person by putting them in jail, and also making it so they won’t be able to get a job after they get out, virtually guaranteeing they’ll have to pay for them to go to jail again!

                  And you claim to be against throwing money at the problem. Hmmm.

            2. The laws do no good whatsoever. It’s up to us to deter these people, and we do. I tell them if they don’t like how we roll, then they need to call the law. Some do. The law tells them we are the most effective neighborhood watch in the state and we will continue to be, and stay of the mountain and out of trouble, and the bums move on. Nobody gets hurt nobody goes to jail no taxpayer resources are used up. There’s no violent actions, altho somewhat assertive language pops up on occasion. We’re just not going to allow our areas to turn into Portland and we’ll do whatever it takes

    1. Very simple, very relaxed drug laws, lots of free stuff and bleeding hearts buying motels for transients and looking to spend and increase the capacity for more. Some of these idiots want to put in all the infrastructure and build tiny homes or “managed” camps. Which means lots of low barrier places. T-minus 10 days and counting…..

      1. That is incorrect. The leading cause of the death for youth is car accidents, per the CDC. Don’t make things up, a simple Google search will prevent you from looking like a fool.

      2. Well, not really.

        “Accidents (unintentional injuries), homicide, suicide, cancer, and heart disease make up the five leading causes of death for teenagers. Motor vehicle fatality is the leading cause of accident death among teenagers, representing over one-third of all deaths to teenagers.”

        Mortality Among Teenagers Aged 12-19 Years – CDC

      1. “For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’”

  2. I have spent a fair amount of time in and around Nashville. Way cleaner than Bend… Homeless people are around, but nothing like here. No tents, mounds of trash, permanent houses built from garbage, etc. there are way more jobs than workers right now. If someone is homeless, it is by choice. Good for states like Tennessee and Texas who have enacted laws like this to keep from looking like Oregon.

      1. Nothing will entice them to move away from here. They can get high without fear of consequences, and we will give them everything they need to be as comfortable as possible. Homeless people from all over make a pilgrimage to the three west coast states… we are the Mecca for bums. It has nothing to do with housing costs, regardless of what the moral superiority crowd claims.

        1. It appears there is a misidentification of the situation. In practice, it appears that being a homeless drug addict has been recognized by Democrats as being an acceptable cultural lifestyle in our society. In other words a tolerated and Gov supported way of life. Same goes for gang and drug culture. This is now an acceptable cultural lifestyle. So might as well accept it and get more tolerant, because it isn’t going away, this is just the beginning.

  3. If you criminalize theft you make thieves criminals, is theft no a crime? Same for those who commit assault or murder. Christian Jesus told the accused adultrey woman go and sin no more as in your forgiven but knock it off. Let him without sin throw the first stone but as for you, you can’t do this adultrey stuff any longer cuz this is what happens. So go and stop the drugs and stealing and living like you expect the community to support your habit then turn around and feed you.

  4. Nothing like KTVZ inviting them here for “refuge”. Must make liberals feel great about themselves to drop some pocket change in their hands to fund their cigarette, alcohol and drug habits rather than offering them a place to stay in their homes. I’m betting NONE of the liberals have ever experienced sleeping outside out of necessity.

  5. Fine…toss them in jail with a felony. See how many tax dollars are spent housing and feeding them then. Theyll be better off but our taxes go up.

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