How One State’s Camping Laws Are Hurting The Homeless

Learn how camping laws in one state are having a severe negative impact on an already suffering homeless population.

By Charlene Badasie | Published

camping homeless

The world can be a cruel and unforgiving place for a lot of people. In the last few years, we’ve seen a global pandemic destroy almost everything we hold dear, leaving a litany of other problems in its wake. Along with inflation, food shortages, and the supply chain crisis in homelessness. While people tend to shy away from the topic, the issue has plagued America for years. Fortunately, there are ways to help folks in need of shelter. But Tennessee lawmakers banning camping on public grounds is not one of them. It just adds to the deck that’s already stacked against the homeless.

Tennessee’s harsh stance on homelessness began in 2020 when the local government declared camping on most state-owned property a felony. To push the expansion, Senator Paul Bailey said 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 who works with homeless people in Cookeville and supports Bailey’s plan, NPR reports. He hopes the new law will inspire people who care about the problem to work with him on long-term solutions.

The new no-camping law requires that all violators (including the homeless) receive at least 24 hours notice before being arrested. 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 told the publication. “But it’s only going to come to that if people really don’t want to move.” After declining for several years, homelessness began increasing in 2017.  

In January 2020, a survey found that the number of unsheltered people exceeded those in shelters. Now, public pressure to do something about the increasing number of homeless folks in highly visible areas has also pushed liberal cities to clear them. While camping has been regulated by local vagrancy laws, Texas passed a statewide ban last year. Moreover, municipalities that fail to enforce the ban risk losing state funding. Several other states have introduced similar laws but Tennessee is the only one to make camping a felony.

The anti-camping law was born after Republican lawmakers received several complaints from Cookeville residents. The district includes a city of about 35,000 folks between Nashville and Knoxville, where the local media documented growing concern with the increasing number of homeless people. Last year, complaints about panhandlers almost doubled between 2019 and 2020, from 157 to 300. And in 2021, the city installed signs encouraging residents to give to charities instead of panhandlers. As a result, according to NPR, the City Council considered panhandling bans twice.

However, the new camping law hasn’t been welcomed by everyone. Speaking about Tennessee’s decision, CEO of the National Healthcare for the Homeless Council Bobby Watts said, the biggest issue he has with labeling it a felony is that it does nothing to solve homelessness. He believes it will only make the problem worse. “Having a felony on your record makes it hard to qualify for some types of housing, harder to get a job, harder to qualify for benefits,” he said. Sadly, despite its detractors, the new law comes into effect on July 1st.