NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A new Tennessee law places a fine and makes it a felony to camp on public property. in response, advocates for unhoused people are planning to march from Legislative Plaza to Riverfront Park where they will sleep out on the public property with the intention of being arrested.
Those with Open Table Nashville say they want to challenge the law in court and prove it is not constitutional. They say it violates human rights and said public land should be for public use.
Open Table Nashville also said renters don’t want to rent to people with felonies on their records, effectively forcing them into homelessness.
“It’s going to prevent people from getting housing eventually. Once they’re out of jail they’re not going to be able to get housing for years to come and then it’s just a cycle,” said Claire Hennigan of Open Table Nashville. “They’re going to keep getting arrested because they’re going to need somewhere to be, they’re going to need somewhere to go.”
It remains unclear how the law will be enforced. Rep. (D) John Ray Clemmons asked that question during the General Assembly.
“Why are we making it, essentially, a felony to be homeless or encamped anywhere else on public property?” he said.
The answer from Rep. (R) Ryan Williams is one of protection for neighborhoods.
“We’re not making it a felony to be homeless; we’re making it a felony to camp on public property,” he said. “Currently the state statute says that it is a felony to camp on state property. This just extends it to your local community.”
Senator Bailey, the bill's sponsor, says this bill focuses on public safety and human dignity. Proponents of the bill said they believe allowing individuals to sleep under bridges and near roadways is not compassionate.
A spokesperson with the Metro Homeless Impact Division said they recently finalized a coordinated plan with state and local authorities.
Once the police are called to a public camping situation, the Homeless Impact Division will be notified and will help unhoused people find a place to stay and not face a felony.