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First state to make public camping for homeless a felony

By Teresa Crowder
Freelance Writer

The concern with the home insecure in Johnson County, Tennessee, and areas across the state will soon reach new heights as a new law takes effect as of July 1, 2022.
Tennessee is about to become the first U.S. state to make it a felony to camp on public property. House Bill 978 passed both the house and senate but was not signed by Governor Bill Lee. “One of the reasons I didn’t sign that bill was because I think there’s a better way, and I want to be a part of that solution,” said Gov. Lee.
The law creates a class ‘C’ misdemeanor if a person camps on or near a state roadway and makes it a felony to camp on public property, like parks. “I want to bring together all the parties. I want to call together the faith leaders, the non-profits, the governmental leaders, those who advocate for the homeless, those who understand the housing challenges and the issues,” Lee said.
Tennessee already made it a felony in 2020 to camp on most state-owned property. No one has been convicted under that law, and it is expected that this one will not be enforced much. The law requires that violators receive at least a 24-hours notice before an arrest. The felony charge is punishable by up to six years in prison and the loss of voting rights.
After several years of steady decline, the homelessness problem 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 further complicated by COVID-19, with shelters across Tennessee limiting capacity.
In Johnson County, Sheriff Eddie Tester reports that “currently, we do not have any issues with trash or camping in public places with the number of homeless that we presently have in the county.” Tester further explained that situations in the county will be worked on and decisions made individually. “If other agencies enforce this law, it will cause the homeless to relocate to different places such as Johnson County.”, says Sheriff Eddie Tester.
“Since December of 2021, we have been working to establish a program here in Johnson County to support and improve the lives of the homeless in our area, said Shawna Buckner, Homeless Advocate. The progress has been slow and laborious, it seems, because of the lack of community support. Though we are making inroads, funding has hindered our program’s forward motion. HB978, if strictly enforced, could impede our progress further because there are no shelters for these people in Johnson County. We seek grants and other subsidies to provide and operate a stepping stone or temporary housing program for those in our county who need a hand up.”