On July 1, a controversial law that enhances the penalties for camping on public property will go into effect across Tennessee, putting the unsheltered homeless population at risk for misdemeanor fines and even felony charges. Advocates who work with the local homeless community are planning to camp out in protest of the law in what they’re calling an act of civil disobedience.
“We really wanted … to call on individuals and organizations that we know across the entire state of Tennessee to come out and stand in solidarity with our unhoused friends and to decry this piece of legislation, because we know that it does nothing to appropriately address homelessness,” says India Pungarcher of Open Table Nashville, a nonprofit that works with homeless Nashvillians and one of the organizations coordinating Friday’s action.
On Friday, when the law goes into effect, activists from Nashville and other communities will gather for a rally at Legislative Plaza. The rally will take place at 7 p.m., and will be followed by a march to Riverfront Park, where protesters will set up tents at 11 p.m. They plan on hosting a breakfast the following morning.
The anti-camping law has been criticized for criminalizing homelessness, and Gov. Bill Lee declined to sign it. It is unclear how often it will be enforced, though according to a news report from Knoxville, one woman had already been arrested for violating the not-yet-in-effect law.
The law makes it a class-C misdemeanor to camp near or under state highways. It also expands to all public property previous legislation making it a felony to camp on state property.
Pungarcher says advocates aren’t as concerned about prosecutions happening in Nashville — District Attorney Glenn Funk has said he will not “prosecute poverty” — but she adds that not all district attorneys in Tennessee will operate similarly.
“We are very concerned that people are actually going to be prosecuted under this new law, and that they will get felonies that will only trap them in homelessness, trap them in poverty, prevent them from getting a new or different job, or getting into housing.”
Pungarcher, like many other outreach workers and advocates, says the solution to homelessness is to build and preserve more affordable housing.
Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced a special funding program to address unsheltered and rural homelessness. Pungarcher says those funds are welcome, but she notes that communities still need to apply and get approved.
Data is crucial to those applications, she says, and there are concerns about whether Nashville is competitive enough to receive funds. A recent audit of the city’s efforts to house people showed gaps in data and trouble housing people experiencing long-term homelessness, which has hurt Nashville’s ability to receive federal grants.
Another of that report’s recommendations also included the creation of an Office for Homeless Services, and the Metro Council passed a bill to create one shortly after the release of the findings. (District 19 Councilmember and mayoral candidate Freddie O’Connell had already filed legislation for the new office before the study was contracted.) While advocates and service providers including Open Table Nashville celebrated the news, they also expressed concern about the fact that the director of the new office would answer directly to Mayor John Cooper rather than operating independently — a response that shows the strained relationship between the administration and outreach workers.
Nashville has also seen homeless encampments grow, which has sparked frustrations from housed people who live near them. But the growth of such camps in rural communities appears to be the precipitating cause of the anti-camping bill.
Pungarcher says the rally will include speakers from rural communities. Shelbyville resident Cara Grimes, whose housing struggle was featured in The New Yorker, is also scheduled to speak.
Update, July 1: The Scene asked the Department of Housing and Urban Development if the funding package for unsheltered and rural homelessness was related to efforts to ban and criminalize camping. A HUD spokesperson sent the following statement:
HUD’s Initiative for Unsheltered and Rural Homelessness will support the implementation of comprehensive humane and effective approaches to reducing unsheltered homelessness, including homeless encampments—using the Housing First and public health approaches. That entails strengthening homeless outreach to engage people experiencing unsheltered homelessness by increasing programs that help people obtain permanent, affordable housing with supportive services. Providing access to health care and treatment and providing low-threshold temporary housing as a bridge to permanent housing. Banning public camping, criminalizing homelessness, and clearing encampments without connections to housing and services does not solve unsheltered homelessness; it only relocates it while disrupting people’s pathways to housing stability and recovery.