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Tennessee homeless seek refuge as public camping becomes a felony crime

Miranda Atnip sits in her car in a car park (Mark Humphrey/AP)
Miranda Atnip sits in her car in a car park (Mark Humphrey/AP)

Tennessee will become the first US state to make it a felony crime to camp on local public property such as parks.

The state, which introduces the new rule on July 1, made it a felony to camp on most public-owned property in 2020.

Senator Paul Bailey said no one has been convicted under that law and said he does not expect this one to be enforced much, either.

But homeless Miranda Atnip, 34, who lost her home during the pandemic after her boyfriend moved out and she fell behind on bills, said: “Honestly, it’s going to be hard.

“I don’t know where else to go.”

Luke Eldridge, who has worked with the homeless in Cookeville, supports Mr Bailey’s plan – partly because he believes it will spur people who care about the homeless to work with him on long-term solutions.

Adam Atnip, who is homeless and lives in his car, accepts money from a driver as he panhandles
Adam Atnip, who is homeless and lives in his car, accepts money from a driver as he panhandles (Mark Humphrey/AP)

The law requires that violators receive at least 24 hours’ notice before an arrest.

The felony charge is punishable by up to six years in prison and the loss of voting rights.

“It’s going to be up to prosecutors … if they want to issue a felony,” Mr Bailey said.

“But it’s only going to come to that if people really don’t want to move.”

After several years of steady decline, homelessness in the United States began increasing in 2017.

A survey in January 2020 found for the first time that the number of unsheltered homeless people exceeded those in shelters.

The problem was exacerbated by Covid-19, with shelters limiting capacity.

Public pressure to do something about the increasing number of highly visible homeless encampments has pushed even many traditionally liberal cities to clear them.

Although camping has generally been regulated by local vagrancy laws, Texas passed a statewide ban last year.

Municipalities that fail to enforce the ban risk losing state funding.

Sean Fuller, who is homeless, panhandles at the entrance to a store
Sean Fuller, who is homeless, panhandles at the entrance to a store (Mark Humphrey/AP)

Several other states have introduced similar bills, but Tennessee is the only one to make camping a felony.

Mr Bailey’s district includes Cookeville, a city of about 35,000 people between Nashville and Knoxville, where the local newspaper has chronicled growing concern with the increasing number of homeless people.

The Herald-Citizen reported last year that complaints about panhandlers nearly doubled between 2019 and 2020, from 157 to 300.

In 2021, the city installed signs encouraging residents to give to charities instead of panhandlers, and the city council twice considered panhandling bans.

The Republican politician acknowledges that complaints from Cookeville got his attention.

City council members have told him that Nashville ships its homeless here, Mr Bailey said.

It is a rumour many in Cookeville have heard and Mr Bailey seems to believe.

When Nashville fenced off a city centre park for renovation recently, the homeless people who frequented it disappeared.

“Where did they go?” Mr Bailey asked.

Ms Atnip, who sleeps in her car, laughed at the idea of people shipped in from Nashville.

She was living in nearby Monterey when she lost her home and had to send her children to live with her parents.

She has received some government help but not enough to get her back on her feet, she said.

At one point she got a housing voucher but could not find a landlord who would accept it.

She and her new husband saved enough to finance a used car and were working as delivery drivers until it broke down.

Adam Atnip, who is homeless and lives in his car, panhandles near a sign asking people not to give directly to panhandlers
Adam Atnip, who is homeless and lives in his car, panhandles near a sign asking people not to give directly to panhandlers (Mark Humphrey/AP)

Now she is afraid they will lose the car and have to move to a tent, though she is not sure where they will pitch it.

“It seems like once one thing goes wrong, it kind of snowballs,” Ms Atnip said.

“We were making money with DoorDash. Our bills were paid. We were saving. Then the car goes kaput and everything goes bad.”

Mr Eldridge, who has worked with Cookeville’s homeless for a decade, is an unexpected advocate of the camping ban.

He said he wants to continue helping the homeless but some people aren’t motivated to improve their situation.

Some are addicted to drugs, he said, and some are hiding from law enforcement.

Mr Eldridge estimates there are about 60 people living outside more or less permanently in Cookeville and he knows them all.

“Most of them have been here a few years and not once have they asked for housing help,” he said.

Mr Eldridge knows his position is unpopular with other advocates.

“The big problem with this law is that it does nothing to solve homelessness. In fact, it will make the problem worse,” said Bobby Watts, CEO of the National Healthcare for the Homeless Council.

“Having a felony on your record makes it hard to qualify for some types of housing, harder to get a job, harder to qualify for benefits.”

Not everyone wants to be in a crowded shelter with a curfew but people will move off the streets given the right opportunities, Mr Watts said.

Homelessness among US military veterans, for example, has been cut nearly in half over the past decade through a combination of housing subsidies and social services.

“It’s not magic,” he said. “What works for that population, works for every population.”

Tina Lomax, who runs Seeds of Hope of Tennessee in nearby Sparta, was once homeless with her children.

Many people are just one pay packet or one tragedy away from being on the streets, she said.

Even in her community of 5,000, affordable housing is very hard to come by.

“If you have a felony on your record — holy smokes!” she said.

Mr Eldridge, like Mr Bailey, said he does not expect many people to be prosecuted for sleeping on public property.

“I can promise, they’re not going to be out here rounding up homeless people,” he said of Cookeville law enforcement.

But he does not know what might happen in other parts of the state.

He hopes the new law will spur some of its opponents to work with him on long-term solutions for Cookeville’s homeless.

If they all worked together it would mean “a lot of resources and possible funding sources to assist those in need”, he said.

But other advocates do not think threatening people with a felony is a good way to help them.

“Criminalising homelessness just makes people criminals,” Mr Watts said.