Brookemeade Homeless Camp

A 2021 cleanup at Brookmeade Park, where a large encampment has frustrated neighbors

While homeless camps have received a lot of coverage in Nashville media, rural and suburban communities have also been looking at ways to address their own growing encampments. Even though housing-first models are held up as standards to follow — since they aim to get people into housing as soon as possible — there are still loud voices clamoring for law enforcement to take action.

Starting in July, state and local police will have another tool to take action when people camp on public property, though questions about whether it will be enforced still remain. 

In April, the legislature passed SB 1610, which makes camping near or under state highways a misdemeanor. People violating the law would receive warnings from law enforcement and then a $50 fine. The law also expands the Equal Access to Public Property Act of 2012, which made unauthorized camping on state property a felony, to apply to all public property.

Opponents of the bill noted there are already local ordinances in place to prohibit camping in public spaces, and that arrests and charges would make it harder for people experiencing homelessness to find housing.

A fiscal memo accompanied the bill speculating that the legislation would not necessarily raise significant funding from the fines, and even the bill’s sponsor Sen. Paul Bailey (R-Cookeville) suggested there would be no significant increase in convictions when presenting the bill to the Senate Judiciary Committee. The chair of that committee, Sen. Mike Bell (R-Riceville), asked several questions about what new tools the bill actually offers law enforcement — and while he didn’t seem too satisfied with the responses from bill supporters, he ultimately voted in favor of it.

The bill later passed on the Senate floor, 22 votes to 10. Gov. Bill Lee declined to sign the legislation, saying he was concerned about unintended consequences, according to The Tennessee Journal. The bill will still go into effect on July 1.

It remains unclear how the law will be enforced locally, if at all. Nashville District Attorney Glenn Funk — who assured his reelection to a second eight-year term by winning the Democratic primary earlier this month — still wants to review the language of the legislation. That’s according to spokesperson Stephen Hayslip, who adds that the DA has said in the past he “doesn’t prosecute poverty.”

Service providers are still concerned the law could be used as a deterrent even if not enforced. India Pungarcher of Open Table Nashville, a nonprofit that performs outreach to unhoused communities, previously told the Scene there was a chance campers could move further off the grid, making it harder for outreach workers to assist them and connect them to already scarce resources.

“If people can’t stay on public property, and they also can’t stay on state property, and they obviously can’t stay on private property, and there aren’t enough shelter beds … where will people go?” asked Pungarcher. “No one has that answer.”

Speaking at the Senate judiciary hearing for the bill prior to its passage, Judith Tackett, former head of Nashville’s Homeless Impact Division, said leaders in rural communities told her they needed resources and housing.

At the May meeting for the Continuum of Care Homelessness Planning Council, made up of stakeholders and service providers in Nashville, members also discussed how the city could be ready for the bill to go into effect. Members stressed that city and state agencies should reach out to the Homeless Impact Division and service providers before closing down any camps.

Unfortunately, what may have gotten the most attention in the debate about this bill is not the concerns that experts on homelessness have raised but rather some bizarre comments from Sen. Frank Niceley (R-Strawberry Plains) when the bill reached the Senate floor.

Niceley said Hitler “decided” to live on the streets for two years to practice “his oratory and his body language and how to connect with the masses, and then went on to lead a life that got him into history books.”

“They can come out of [these] homeless camps, and have a productive life. Or in Hitler’s case, a very unproductive life,” he said.

The quote went viral — picked up by The Washington Post, national TV news and Last Week Tonight With John Oliver — as people tried to parse just what the senator meant by comparing homeless people to Hitler. (The claim Hitler willingly lived on the streets is also false.)

Within days, Niceley sparked another controversy, this time for saying that only the Jewish members of Donald Trump’s family would care that Morgan Ortagus was booted from the Republican ballot of Tennessee’s 5th Congressional District. (Ortagus was endorsed by the former president and is Jewish.) Niceley once again made national headlines, inspiring people around the country to wonder just what is going on in Tennessee.

But the situation of how to navigate the new state law remains a local matter, for the people living in camps and those trying to help them.

Last month marked the conclusion of the 112th Tennessee General Assembly. State lawmakers made a lot of noise. Here’s what they did — and didn’t — get done.

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