Tennessee’s ‘public camping’ law, broken down

In one month, a Tennessee law will go into effect making it illegal to camp in public.

Supporters of the law, including lawmakers and local leaders from across the state, say the bill will not criminalize unhoused people and that local law enforcement will have discretion on when to apply the law.

Opponents of the law say the move is targeted at the growing population of unhoused people in cities like Nashville, where rents have skyrocketed in recent years and is now facing a severe shortage of affordable housing.

Here are the facts about the new law:

Tennessee has a worsening housing problem

Nashville and the surrounding area is one of the fastest growing areas in the country. As the population has grown, so has the cost of housing.

A report released by the Metro Nashville Affordable Housing Task Force said Nashville needs to triple the amount of affordable housing available in the next several years or face further affordable housing shortages.

In the past 10 years, tech companies relocating to the town known for country music have created thousands of good-paying jobs. In 2020, The Wall Street Journal named Nashville the second hottest job market in the U.S. behind only Austin, and the Today Show named it a top post-pandemic city.

Although the city is popular with corporations, job seekers and tourists alike, the city’s housing challenges are becoming increasingly magnified. Federal data from 2019 showed 44 percent of Nashville residents are housing cost burdened, meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs.

The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Nashville is $1,746 per month—more than 1.5 times the rent in Memphis ($988) and still higher than the average 1-bedroom rent in Austin, Texas, which is $1,396.

Homelessness is on the rise

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the number of unhoused people rose 20 percent nationwide between 2020 and 2021.

The number of unhoused people around the country was on the rise before the pandemic, but like most things that were already concerning, the pandemic made it worse, the HUD data shows.

In 2020, Tennessee made it a felony to camp on state-owned property

In 2020, the Tennessee legislature approved a bill aimed at keeping protestors off capitol grounds by making illegal camping on state property punishable by up to six years in prison and a Class E felony. The bill was passed after weeks of protest outside the capitol where protestors were requesting a meeting with Gov. Bill Lee.

This year, Tennessee expanded that law

This session, Tennessee lawmakers makes it a felony to camp in parks and local public property and a misdemeanor to camp under overpasses or along highways, effectively making it illegal for unhoused people to sleep in public places.

This law was essentially an expansion of the 2020 bill, which made it illegal to camp on state property. This new law, which will go into effect July 1, expanded illegal camping to all public property.

The bill was approved by the legislature on April 20 and became law without Gov. Bill Lee’s signature on May 3

In April, Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs posted a tweet: “Allowing homeless people to camp on public property does not help them—it enables them and prevents them from seeking the aid and resources they need to get back on their feet.” This tweet was a signal of support for the bill.

What are the penalties?

Camping in public has essentially two levels of “punishment” according to these two laws.

According to the law, your first offense comes with a warning. The second offense comes with a fine of $50 and 20 to 40 hours of community service or litter removal.

Arrests on local public property would have to be preceded by a warning at least 24 hours earlier. Items used to camp could be confiscated by authorities for 90 days, or longer if they are needed for evidence in a criminal case.

Who’s fighting back?

Organizations that serve unhoused people have been vocal about the law, with many saying the law further criminalizes poverty and homelessness for Tennessee residents.

“When we allow our legislators to turn those who are society’s most beaten down into criminals, we reject the very thing that gives us the right to call ourselves civilized: our capacity for compassion, for justice rooted in love for others rather than hate,” Father Charles Strobel, founding director of homeless aid organization Room In The Inn, wrote in a newspaper guest column.

Also, recently a new support services facility for unhoused people in Nashville broke ground Tuesday.

The new facility is part of Mayor John Cooper’s efforts to make Nashville a “housing first” city. Cooper has also committed $50 million from the city’s American Rescue Plan funds to address homelessness.

The groundbreaking comes at the same time as a report by national homelessness experts Stacy Horn Koch, Andreanecia Morris, and Sam Tsemberis, showing Nashville has the resources to better serve unhoused people, but lacks the coordination and leadership needed to get it done.

Anna Beahm

Anna Beahm |

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

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