“Criminalizing homelessness just makes people criminals.” -Bobby Watts, CEO of the National Healthcare for the Homeless Council
See? This is one of many reasons for the state to not own land except to do the business of the authorities the people of the state delegated to them. Following passing an absolutely immoral bill to criminalize homelessness, Tennessee is poised to become the first state in the union to criminalize camping on public lands, such as parks, but also would make it a felony!
The AP reports:
Tennessee is about to become the first U.S. state to make it a felony to camp on local public property such as parks.
Tennessee already made it a felony in 2020 to camp on most state-owned property. In pushing the expansion, Sen. Paul Bailey noted that no one has been convicted under that law and said he doesn’t expect this one to be enforced much, either. Neither does Luke Eldridge, a man who has worked with homeless people in the city of Cookeville and supports Bailey’s plan — in part because he hopes it will spur people who care about the homeless to work with him on long-term solutions.
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,” 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 out the encampments. 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. Several other states have introduced similar bills, but Tennessee is the only one to make camping a felony.
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 lawmaker acknowledges that complaints from Cookeville got his attention. City council members have told him that Nashville ships its homeless here, Bailey said. It’s a rumor many in Cookeville have heard and Bailey seems to believe. When Nashville fenced off a downtown park for renovation recently, the homeless people who frequented it disappeared. “Where did they go?” Bailey asked.
But the law isn’t just regarding the homeless. It targets the people in general too, making it a crime for you to sleep on public property, whether in your car, truck or other areas.
Synopsis of the New Illegal Camping Law
Back in 2012, the State of Tennessee passed the “Equal Access to Public Property Act of 2012” (§ 39-14-414), which banned camping on state owned property. The Act was created in response to the “Occupy Nashville” movement in which protesters erected tents on the state-owned War Memorial Plaza.
The Act made it illegal to camp on any state owned property that was not designated for camping. A person can only be charged with violating this act if he or she was informed by an officer and failed to remove themselves and their belongings.
The term “camping” was given a specific definition to include erecting any kind of shelter, or other bedding, as well as the act of sleeping and the act of cooking. Just the act of sleeping on state owned property, qualifies as “camping”.
The Act exempted, however, all state owned campgrounds, or other state properties where camping was allowed.
Expansion of the Act
Fast forward to the Summer of 2020, when rioters across the country began attacking random people, burning and looting businesses, vandalizing cars and property. The Tennessee Legislature responded the following year with a bill designed to expand on the Equal Access to Public Property Act of 2012.
The expansion removes the term, “state owned property” from the Act and replaces it with just “public property”.
Interestingly, the expansion does not define “public property”. However, it does defines “public place” (§ 39-11-106) as any place (within the State of Tennessee) where the public has the right to access. This would include federally owned lands, as well state, county, and city owned lands. This would include all public parks, memorials, buildings, plazas, highways, bridges, rest areas, etc.
However, this new expansion exempts any public property that was already approved for camping purposes. Thus, national forests (boondocking) are exempt, as well as any publicly owned campgrounds. Note that the Bureau of Land Management does not manage any lands in Tennessee.
The Expansion Also Amends the Motor Vehicle Code
Tennessee’s Motor Vehicle Code was also amended by creating a new section that effectively duplicates itself with the above, but specifically names the following public places where camping is now banned…
- On the shoulder, berm, or right-of-way of a state or interstate highway; or
- Under a bridge or overpass, or within an underpass, of a state or interstate highway
Interestingly, this amendment to the Motor Vehicle Code defines camping as any kind of sleeping or cooking, as long as its outside of a vehicle. However, the 2022 expansion of the Equal Access to Public Property Act of 2012 has already banned sleeping of any kind, on any public property.
What About Sleeping Overnight in a Vehicle?
It’s no longer allowed on public property. This is because both the Equal Access to Public Property Act of 2012, along with its 2022 expansion, has a very broad (and lengthy) definition of “camping”. Just the act of sleeping itself, on public property, is illegal.
It does not matter if you are sleeping inside your own vehicle, or any other structure that you own. As long as you placed it on publicly owned property, with the intent of sleeping or cooking, it meets the definition of “camping”…
- Read the original Equal Access to Public Property Act of 2012 to see the exact definition of “camping”, and then…
- Read the 2022 expansion, particularly Section 2, where it changed “state owned land” to “public property”.
When it comes to the issue of parks, Boondockersbible.com informs,”If a city or county park had already approved camping on its grounds, then you can still do so. However, any city or county park where camping was not approved, is now a violation of state law.”
However, you cannot park in a government-owned hospital parking lot to sleep.
Somehow, I seen a manipulation of language and those charged with “sleeping” should probably claim they were “resting,” and see what that definition implies for the “courts.” This is much the same claim that many of us would use if asked if we were “driving.” We’re not engaged in commerce, so no, we are not “driving.” Rather, we are “traveling.”
Somehow, I think our founding fathers would have already been rebelling against this clear usurpation of power.
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