A controversial bill that would make it a misdemeanor to camp near highways passed a state Senate vote on Wednesday morning. The legislation also expands the Equal Access to Public Property Act of 2012, which banned unauthorized camping on state property, to apply to all public property.
Opponents of the bill, SB 1610, say it criminalizes homelessness, since many of the people it affects may not have adequate access to other forms of shelter or housing opportunities.
Sen. Brenda Gilmore (D-Nashville) noted that studies find it is less expensive to provide housing and resources to unhoused people than it is to arrest them. “It would be more meaningful to provide resources to these homeless people,” she said. She also pointed out that laws already exist at city and state levels prohibiting unauthorized camping. Sen. Heidi Campbell (D-Nashville) asked whether the bill would be constitutional and raised concerns that it would not address the fundamental causes of homelessness.
Supporters of the bill insisted that it does not criminalize homelessness and stressed that arresting people was not the goal of the bill. Bill sponsor Sen. Paul Bailey (R-Sparta) said further punishment would be up to local prosecutors.
Sen. Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville), speaking in support, described unsanitary conditions at camps in his district and challenges with relocating folks to shelters.
The bill explicitly creates a misdemeanor charge for camping along highways and near entrance and exit ramps. It also expands the Equal Access to Public Property Act to apply not just to state property but city property as well. In 2020, the legislature voted to increase the penalty for breaking that law from a misdemeanor to a felony.
The most confusing comments in support of the bill came from Sen. Frank Niceley (R-Strawberry Plains), who falsely claimed Adolf Hitler decided to live on the streets for two years to improve his oratory skills and connect with the masses. No evidence supports this claim, by the way: Hitler lived in a dormitory for homeless men because he was broke.
“A lot of these people, it’s not a dead end — they can come out of these homeless camps and have a productive life,” said Niceley. “Or in Hitler’s case, a very unproductive life.”
The bill was also discussed at the Nashville Continuum of Care Homelessness Planning Council Meeting earlier Wednesday morning. The council consists of service providers, councilmembers and other stakeholders who decided to send a letter opposing the bill to Gov. Bill Lee should it pass. Some wondered if potential court challenges could inspire more resources to be made available — an anti-camping law in Boise, Idaho, was deemed unconstitutional because the city lacked adequate alternatives. They also discussed contacting the local district attorney and liaisons in the Metro Nashville Police Department.
Homeless encampments have been a heated topic in Nashville over the past year. Interim director of the Metro Homeless Impact Division Jay Servais came under fire earlier this year for implementing a pilot program to house residents of a camp underneath the Jefferson Street Bridge, as critics said the plan did not receive proper vetting from HPC members.
Servais also recounted attending a workshop hosted by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development about successful encampment strategies, and said some promising ideas were generated. He said he wanted to emphasize a community response to camps and have plans in place when it comes to closures.
“I don’t want to be told to close an encampment and not have a plan,” he said.
Councilmember Freddie O’Connell asked who would be making the call to close camps, and Servais responded that the mayor’s office “would be making that decision … based on public health and public safety.”
Additional context from the Homelessness Planning Council meeting was added to this article.