Is Tennessee’s anti-camping law working? It depends on who you ask

Published: Aug. 15, 2022 at 5:38 PM CDT
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WSMV) - Tennessee’s anti-camping law has been in effect for more than a month and a half, so how is it being enforced? It depends on who you ask.

Some homeless advocates said with the new law on the books, encampments are being targeted and displaced, so they are popping up in new places. Others told WSMV 4 that they feel their encampments have largely been left alone.

John Perry has been in Nashville for 30 days. The entire time he has been here, it has been illegal to camp on public or state property. Perry said he’s slept outside at a park on Gay Street every night and said police have not bothered him.

“If we want to lay down, we can lay down in the grass,” Perry said. “They told us not to lay on the benches, and that is pretty much all they have said to us.”

While Perry personally has not felt the impact of the state’s new anti-camping law, Open Table Nashville said others experiencing homelessness are.

“We have seen an increase in officers coming to friends in encampments,” India Pungarcher with Open Table said. “Police officers have straight up said that they are not sure how to interpret this law or enforce it, but they have been going into encampments and saying ‘hey, you need to move. This is a felony.’”

MNPD said since the law went into effect, officers have not arrested anyone for violating it.

The Metro Homeless Impact Division said they have an agreement with police that if police get called on someone who is homeless, MHID will be notified. State and local officials will then allow MHID 30 to 45 days to help people find housing to avoid facing a felony.

“We have heard of this happening,” Pungarcher said. “This specific timeframe is something that is new, and it is something we do want to get behind.”

Pungarcher said the plan is not perfect.

“Someone experiencing homelessness... Police calls, then MHID intervenes — 30 to 45 days is not a realistic time to get someone into housing,” Pungarcher said. “We are concerned that it will be a system where people will complain enough, police will get involved and reach out to MHID, but not everyone will get housed.”

WSMV 4 asked MNPD if they would arrest someone if MHID is unable to find them housing within 45 days or if the person refuses housing.

“The MNPD has been working with other agencies and community partners on issues related to homelessness for years before the recent camping law was enacted,” Brooke Reese with MNPD said. “We continue to utilize those resources to assist persons who are willing to avail themselves of those services. Each case is different and any decisions regarding services and timelines for compliance are evaluated under the totality of the circumstances.”

Perry said while he has not been impacted by the law, he does not agree with it.

“It is class warfare,” Perry said. “It is their way of warring against people they don’t want.”

WSMV 4 reached out to MHID to see how many calls they have responded to and how many people they are trying to get housing to avoid a felony. MHID said they are working to get us those numbers.

“In response to the new law, we’ve instructed our outreach team to host more frequent Resource Days where our team goes to the outdoor encampments where people are most vulnerable to having the police called on them,” Harriet Wallace with MHID said. “During the Resource Days, we bring out our community partners - mental health, substance abuse support, domestic violence support, etc. - so folks can get the support they need to better prepare them for housing. Our team and partners also input or ensure our clients are in the Coordinated Entry system, which is our housing pipeline.”

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