‘Nowhere to go’: Why making it a crime to camp will drive some deeper into homelessness

Tennessee’s anti-camping law, which makes it illegal to camp in public, will make it more difficult for people experiencing homelessness to get housing assistance or jobs, according to advocates and people affected by the new law.

The law, which will go into effect July 1, makes it a felony to camp on any public property or underneath highways.

“This bill is going to do absolutely nothing to address homelessness. All it’s going to do is criminalize people who are already struggling to survive,” said India Pungarcher of Open Table Nashville, a nonprofit that helps people experiencing homelessness access resources.

“This law ignores the fact that we don’t have enough resources, and we don’t have enough affordable housing across the state. It’s just getting more and more dire. This law is going to make things absolutely more dire and more difficult for people to survive on the streets and maintain and get into housing,” Pungarcher added.

Giving a person experiencing homelessness a felony will make it harder for them to find shelter, housing, a job or government assistance, she said. Also, there are not enough shelter beds available in Nashville, nor is there a shelter that accepts couples or fathers with minor children. Pets are also prohibited in Nashville shelters.

Some shelters won’t accept people with certain medical conditions, citing the insurance liability of having them under the shelter’s care.

These prohibitions combined leave many unhoused people with no option but to camp on public property.

Grodo and Kayla are facing that situation in Nashville. The couple, who asked to be identified only by their first names, has had a Section 8 voucher for months, but can’t find a landlord that will accept them and their dogs, Wykd and Gizmo. They’ve been experiencing homelessness together for six years.

Legislators claim that the bill doesn’t criminalize homelessness, but Grodo and Kayla said it absolutely does.

“It says it right there in the bill: It’s a crime to camp in public,” Kayla said.

The couple hopes to find a place before July 1, but if that doesn’t happen, they may start living in their car, Grodo said.

“We’ve been trying to do the right thing for a long time now and we just keep falling through the cracks,” he said.

Kayla, who has no arrest record, said the prospect of a felony conviction will create serious problems for her and many others. Section 8 housing options for people with felony convictions. HUD will automatically reject an application if the person applying has been convicted of selling or manufacturing meth in a HUD property or if the person is on the lifetime sex offender registry.

Other rules around felonies and Section 8 eligibility are broad and interpreted in various ways by state and local HUD offices.

Legislators who supported the anti-camping law said local district attorneys will have discretion when it comes to the enforcement of the law. However, law enforcement agencies across Tennessee are already using the not-yet-enacted law to require unhoused people to take down their camps, Pungarcher said. She said they’ve specifically heard report of this happening in Nashville and Knoxville.

“They already kick us out of places as if it’s already law, so it’s gonna mess up people a whole lot more. We are going to go to jail. We won’t be able to camp anywhere because of it. But it’s gonna mess up a lot of people because they’re gonna have nowhere to go,” Kayla said.

Even if unhoused people arrested under the new law are not convicted, they’ll have the additional burden of jumping through legal hurdles on top of searching for resources and housing.

Pungarcher said she hopes the Nashville-Davidson County district attorney’s office will not enforce this law, but she said she knows every DA may have a different approach.

“Even if someone’s not prosecuted, involving people experiencing homelessness continually with our legal system that is not rehabilitative in any sense of the word, is something that we’re most concerned about at this point,” Pungarcher said.

Anna Beahm

Anna Beahm |

I report on the intersection of religion and sexuality in America. Follow me on Twitter @_AnnaBeahm

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