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State senators voted to pass a bill that would criminalize unhoused people sleeping outside

"How can you punish someone for being poor?" said Vivian Shipe of Connect Ministries, an advocate who criticized the bill.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Three Knox County area senators voted in favor of a Tennessee bill that would effectively criminalize homelessness. Those senators include Richard Briggs (R - Knoxville), who said he thinks unhoused people simply shouldn't be sleeping outside in poor conditions.

It is already illegal to sleep or camp on state-owned property. The bill would expand that prohibition to any property owned by local governments, making it a felony. However, it lets authorities choose not the pursue charges.

“They're living under bridges, and that's just not a humane way to live, folks. We have the opportunity to get them out of those horrid conditions,” he said.

Advocates from Connect Ministries and the Knox Area Rescue Ministries said they believed putting homeless campers in jail would lead to more harm than good.

“How can you punish someone for being poor?’ asked Vivian Shipe of Connect Ministries. 

“The goal is really for them to get help, and we're not going to accomplish a lot by putting someone behind bars,” said Burt Rosen, the CEO of KARM.

The law specifically makes camping or sleeping outside a Class E felony, which can include jail time, a $3,000 fine and losing voting rights. Versions of the bill already passed the House and Senate, and a version resolving differences in those bills could soon go to Governor Bill Lee's desk for his signature.

“We just need to be willing to help," said Shipe. "We can all rise together."

The bill is still being reviewed by the General Assembly. The House of Representatives is looking over the Senate's most recent version of the bill and will vote on whether to approve or deny it.

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