How enforcement of homeless bill will work

Published: Jun. 30, 2022 at 7:19 PM CDT

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WSMV) - The bill commonly referred to as the “homeless bill” goes into effect on July 1 in Tennessee.

How it will be enforced depends on each local government in the state, according to the state lawmakers who passed the law.

The bill basically makes camping illegal in certain places and it’s expected to impact the homeless community the most.

“There is not enough shelter space in Tennessee to accommodate people, so I’m not exactly sure where they’re supposed to go,” state Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, said.

State lawmakers said the bill empowers local governments in the state to enforce the law if and how they want to and in Nashville city officials said they just created a plan.

Yarbro said enforcement of the law isn’t completely spelled out.

“I think one of the biggest problems in the law is that the level of enforcement is remarkably vague,” Yarbro said. “The problem is that this is a law that seems like it is made available for local governments or law enforcement to go after people that they don’t want to be somewhere, and that sort of level of arbitrary decision making is not what you want to see in laws.

In a statement, state Sen. Paul Bailey, R-Sparta, Senate sponsor of the bill, said:

“This bill focuses on public safety and human dignity. Allowing individuals to sleep under bridges and near roadways is not compassionate. It is unsafe. Through this bill we will give local governments the ability to protect public safety and connect homeless populations with the resources they need to restore their dignity and improve their living situations.”

“Here in Nashville, we’ve gotten a lot of non-answers I’ll say about it. We don’t really know what’s going to happen or how it’s going to look,” Claire Hennigan, Outreach and Resource Navigators for OpenTable Nashville, said.

Since it falls on local governments, WSMV4 asked the city how it plans to enforce the new law in Nashville, a city where homelessness is very visible.

Metro Homeless Impact Division said it recently finalized a coordinated plan with state and local authorities.

“If police are called on a person experiencing homelessness, MHID will be immediately contacted,” Harriet Wallace, Interim Public Information Officer for Metro Homeless Impact Division, said. “State and local officials will allow us 30-45 days to connect with our community partners and organizations to assist in finding them an alternative living situation to avoid facing a felony for their homeless experience.”

“That harassment, that stress of knowing I could get a felony from just sleeping in this public park is enough to really impact our friends on the street significantly,” Hennigan said about the impact of enforcement on the homeless community.

“The camps that I work at personally, I’ve gotten that question all the time. ‘Where am I going to go? What am I going to do? What do they want me to do?’” Hennigan said.

The felony offense could mean thousands of dollars in fines and possible jail time.

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