Tennessee senators are preparing to debate legislation on the Senate floor that would make camping on all state and local public property illegal. Senate bill 1610 failed last year but was revived and passed in the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, despite testimony warning of potential unintended consequences.

This proposed legislation makes camping or sleeping alongside a state or interstate highway a crime. The bill also targets homeless encampments and aims to expand the “Equal Access to Public Property Act of 2012” by adding local government lands to the list of places where camping is a felony.

If the goal is to remove homeless people from land intended to be used by everyone, is this really equal access? The irony is obvious.

Housing First policies work

Evidence is clea – “Housing First” is an effective model for solving homelessness, especially for individuals who have been homeless for an extended period and those with mental health or addiction issues.

Housing First policies recognize a stable living environment as necessary for someone to engage effectively with behavioral health and other services. This is not rocket science – psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote in 1943 that basic human needs like shelter, food, and sleep must be met before a person can take care of health and personal safety needs.

Studies show that by helping individuals find permanent housing first, people are two to three times more likely to remain housed than those who were required to participate in treatment before qualifying for housing.

One step forward, two steps back

Tennessee does not have enough shelter capacity to house all of the state’s homeless population, which includes a large number of families, military veterans, and children.

It is already illegal to sleep on state or private property. If local public property is added to this list, there would be nowhere left for homeless individuals and families to sleep without risking a criminal charge.

Sleeping or cooking at night on any state or local public land would call for a felony charge carrying a minimum of one year in prison plus a fine of up to $ 3,000. Tennessee citizens charged under this law would not only lose their right to vote but also face extraordinary barriers to accessing housing and employment.

Tennessee does not have enough shelter capacity to house all of the state’s homeless population, which includes a large number of families, military veterans, and children.

Cruel and unusual

Arresting people experiencing homelessness does nothing to solve the problem. While those advocating on behalf of Senate bill 1610 say they want to help those living in encampments find housing, this legislation would make it much harder for those impacted to find a place to live.

Further, the US Supreme Court in 2019 upheld a ruling (Martin v. Boise) banning communities from enforcing anti-camping laws in the absence of sufficient shelter beds. The court found that such laws violate the Eighth Amendment protecting citizens from cruel and unusual punishment.

If Tennessee passes this new public property camping ban, the state could be opening itself up to a major lawsuit.

Support leads to recovery, not punishment

As professional social workers and mental health advocates, we recognize homelessness is a complex issue. Leaders must work collaboratively to develop community-specific solutions that support but don’t punish our most vulnerable neighbors.

We applaud those working day and night to help homeless individuals and families gain and maintain housing and employment. Other dedicated professionals provide the necessary mental health and addiction services that support ongoing recovery and help prevent homelessness.

When someone is experiencing poverty, homelessness, or a behavioral health crisis, we must meet them where they are with respect and compassion.

Criminalizing sleeping in public is a solution for no one in Tennessee.

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