COOKEVILLE, Tenn. ( Associated Press) — Miranda Etnip lost her home during the coronavirus pandemic after her boyfriend moved out and she fell behind on the bills. Living in a car, the 34-year-old worries every day about getting money for food, finding somewhere to take a bath, and saving up enough money for an apartment where her three kids can live with her again.
Now he has a new concern: Tennessee is about to become the first US state to set up camp on local public property such as parks.,
“Honestly, it’s going to be tough,” Atnip said of the law, which takes effect July 1., “I don’t know where else to go.”
Tennessee already made it a felony in 2020 to camp on most state-owned property. Pushing the extension, Sen. Paul Bailey said no one has been convicted under that law and said he doesn’t expect it to be enforced much. Neither does Luke Aldridge, a man who has worked with homeless people in the city of Cookeville and supports Bailey’s plan — as he hopes it will inspire those who care about the homeless and his thoughts on long-term solutions. work together.
The law requires that violators receive notice at least 24 hours prior to arrest. The felony charge carries a punishment of up to six years in prison and loss of the right to vote.
“It will be up to prosecutors … if they want to release a felony,” Bailey said. “But that’s only going to come if people really don’t want to move.”
After several years of steady decline, the number of homeless in the United States began to rise in 2017., A survey in January 2020 found for the first time that the number of homeless people outnumbered those living in shelters. The problem was exacerbated by COVID-19, which limited the capacity of shelters.
Public pressure to do something about the growing number of highly visible homeless camps has prompted many traditionally liberal cities to evacuate as well., Although camping is generally regulated by local vaginal laws, Texas passed a statewide ban last year. Municipalities that fail to enforce the ban run the risk of losing state funding. Several other states have introduced similar bills, but Tennessee is the only one that has made camping a felony.
Bailey’s district includes Cookville, a city of about 35,000 people between Nashville and Knoxville, where the local newspaper described a growing concern with the growing number of homeless people. The Herald-Citizen reported last year that complaints about panhandlers nearly doubled from 157 to 300 between 2019 and 2020. In 2021, the city installed signs encouraging residents to give to charity instead of panhandlers. And the city council twice considered the panhandling ban.
The Republican lawmaker acknowledged that Cookville’s complaints got his attention. Bailey said members of the city council told her that Nashville sends its homeless people here. This is a rumor many people in Cookville have heard and Bailey seems to believe. When Nashville recently closed Downtown Park for refurbishment, the homeless who frequent it disappeared. “Where did they go?” Bailey asked.
Atnip laughed at the thought of people being sent from Nashville. She was living in nearby Monterey when she lost her home and had to send her children to live with their parents. She said she has received some government help, but that is not enough to get her back on her feet. At one point he received 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. Now she fears they will lose the car and will have to move to a tent, although she is not sure where they will keep it.
“It’s like once one thing goes wrong, it kind of snowballs,” Atnip said. “We were making money from DoorDash. Our bills were paid. We were saving. Then the car goes kaput and everything gets messed up.”
Aldridge, who has worked with Cookville’s homeless for a decade, is an unlikely proponent of the camping ban. He said he wants to continue helping the homeless, but some are not motivated to improve their situation. Some are addicted to drugs, he said, and some are hiding from law enforcement. Aldridge estimates that there are about 60 people living out more or less permanently in Cookville, and he knows them all.
“Most of them have been here for a few years, and have not asked for housing assistance even once,” he said.
Aldridge knows that his position is unpopular among 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 Health Care for the Homeless Council. “Having a felony on your record makes it harder to qualify for certain types of housing, harder to get a job, makes it harder to qualify for benefits.”
Not everyone wants to live in a crowded shelter with a curfew, but people will take to the streets when the right opportunity arises, Watts said. Homelessness among US military veterans, for example, has been reduced by nearly half in 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. She said that many people are just a paycheck or a tragedy away from being on the streets. Even in her community of 5,000, it is very difficult to find affordable housing.
“If you have a felony on your record – holy smoking!” he said.
Eldridge, like Sen. Bailey, said he does not expect many people to be prosecuted for sleeping on public property. “I can promise, they’re not going to corner the homeless here,” he said of Cookville law enforcement. But he doesn’t know what might happen in other parts of the state.
He hopes the new law will inspire some of his opponents to work with him on a long-term solution for Cookville’s homeless. If they all work together it would mean “a lot of resources and potential funding sources to help those in need,” he said.
But other advocates don’t think bullying people with a felony is a good way to help them.
“Criminalizing the homeless makes people criminals,” Watts said.