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Tennessee homeless commits a felony and seeks shelter in public camp: NPR

Homeless and car-dwelling Adam Atnip receives money from his driver on May 10, 2022 while he is doing a pan handle in Cookeville, Tennessee.

Mark Humphrey / AP

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Mark Humphrey / AP

Homeless and car-dwelling Adam Atnip receives money from his driver on May 10, 2022 while he is doing a pan handle in Cookeville, Tennessee.

Mark Humphrey / AP

Cookeville, Tennessee — Miranda Atnip lost her home during a coronavirus pandemic after her boyfriend moved to lag behind the bill. A 34-year-old car resident, she is worried about making money for food, finding a place to take a shower, and saving enough money for an apartment where her three children can live together again every day. ..

Now she has new concerns. Tennessee is becoming the first US state to felony camping in local public facilities such as parks.

“Honestly, that would be difficult,” Atnip said of the law coming into force on July 1. “I don’t know where else to go.”

Tennessee has already committed a felony in 2020 to camp on most state-owned property. In driving the expansion, Senator Paul Bailey noted that no one was convicted under the law and said he did not expect the law to come into force much. Luke Eldridge, who works with homeless people in Cookeville and supports Bailey’s plans, also hopes that homeless people will be able to work on long-term solutions.

The law requires violators to be notified at least 24 hours before their arrest. Felony charges are punished by imprisonment for up to 6 years and loss of voting rights.

“If they want to issue a felony, it’s up to the prosecutor,” Bailey said. “But it will only happen if people really don’t want to move.”

After a steady decline for several years, homelessness in the United States began to increase in 2017. The January 2020 survey found for the first time that the number of non-evacuated homeless people exceeded the number of shelters. This problem was exacerbated by COVID-19, which limited the shelter’s capacity.

Public pressure to do something about the increasing number of prominent homeless camps has urged even many traditionally liberal cities to wipe them out. Camps have generally been regulated by local wandering laws, but Texas passed a state-wide ban last year. Municipalities that cannot enforce the ban are at risk of losing state funds. Similar bills have been filed in several other states, but only Tennessee has made the camp a felony.

The district of Bailey is home to Cookeville, a city of about 35,000 people between Nashville and Knoxville, and local newspapers have recorded growing concerns about the rise in homelessness. Herald Citizen reported last year that complaints about bread handlers nearly doubled from 157 to 300 between 2019 and 2020. In 2021, the city installed a sign encouraging residents to donate to charities on behalf of bread handlers. And the city council considered banning bread handling twice.

Republican lawmakers admit that a complaint from Cookeville caught his attention. According to Bailey, members of the city council told him that Nashville is shipping homeless people here. It’s a rumor that many in Cookeville have heard, and Bailey seems to believe. Recently, when Nashville fenced a downtown park for renovation, homeless people who visited it often disappeared. “Where did they go?” Bailey asked.

Atnip laughed at the ideas of the people shipped from Nashville. She lived in nearby Monterey when she lost her home and had to send her children to live with her parents. She received government support, but she said she wasn’t enough to recover. At one point she got a voucher for her home, but she couldn’t find a landlord to accept it. She and her new husband saved enough to raise money for a used car and worked as a delivery driver until it broke down. Now she’s worried they’ll lose their car and have to move to a tent, but they don’t know where to throw it.

“When one problem occurs, it becomes a kind of snowball,” Atnip said. “We were making money with DoorDash. Our invoice was paid. We were saving. Then the car broke and everything went wrong.”

Eldridge, who has worked with Cookeville homeless for 10 years, is an unexpected supporter of the ban on camping. He said he wanted to continue to support the homeless, but some people are not willing to improve their situation. Some are drug addicts, others are hiding from law enforcement agencies, he said. Eldridge estimates that Cookeville has about 60 people who live more or less permanently outside, and he knows all of them.

“Most of them have been here for a few years and have never sought housing assistance,” he said.

Eldridge knows that his position is not popular with other supporters.

“The big problem with this law is that we do nothing to solve the homeless. In fact, it will exacerbate the problem,” said Bobby Watts, Chief Executive Officer of National Healthcare for the Homeless Council. Told. “A felony in your record makes it harder to qualify for some kind of housing, harder to get a job, and harder to qualify for benefits.”

Not everyone wants to be in a crowded shelter with a curfew, but people will leave the street if given the right opportunity, Watts said. For example, US military veterans’ homelessness has been cut by almost half in the last decade, with a combination of housing subsidies and social welfare.

“It’s not magic,” he said. “What works for that population works for all.”

Tina Lomax, who runs the seeds of hope in Tennessee in nearby Sparta, was once homeless with her children. Many people said she was only one salary or one tragedy because she was on the street. Even in her 5,000 community, it’s very difficult to get affordable homes.

“If your record is a felony — holy smoke!” She said.

Eldridge, like Senator Bailey, said he didn’t expect many people to be prosecuted for sleeping on public property. “I can promise, they won’t go out here to round up the homeless people,” he said of Cookeville law enforcement. But he doesn’t know what will happen in other parts of the state.

He hopes the new law will spur some opponents to work with him on a long-term solution for the homeless in Cookeville. He said that if they all worked together, it would mean “many resources and possible sources of funding to help those in need.”

However, other supporters do not believe that threatening people with felony is a good way to help them.

“Criminalizing the homeless only makes people criminals,” Watts said.