Tennessee’s new public property tenting regulation brings extra stress to shelters

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NASHVILLE, Tennessee (WKRN) – Nestled in downtown Nashville is Room in the Inn, a shelter dedicated to helping the homeless.

The employees there say they love their jobs. But in July things got a little more chaotic. The Tennessee legislature passed legislation this year criminalizing camping on public property. It came after already tough years with COVID-19.

“Warehouses became very visible during this time,” said Rachel Hester, executive director of Room in the Inn. “For this law to go through, it seems like it was born out of frustration.”

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Hester runs the shelter. She says she doesn’t want to argue with politicians or her peers, but she can’t deny that this law was tough.

“Now it’s creating friction there instead of all of us trying to help,” Hester said. “Now it’s creating division, even in your own neighborhood.”

Rep. Mark White (R-Memphis) co-sponsored the bill when it was a bill.

WKRN News 2 asked, “What do you say to people who say, ‘You’re targeting a group of people who can’t help or support themselves?'”

“If we allow part of our society to do what they want – camp, anywhere that doesn’t have sanitation, public toilets and the like, then I think we’re doing something to our communities [a disservice]’ said White. “I worry about the spread of social diseases and sanitation.”

News 2 followed with, “Where do you want the homeless to go now?”

“There are union missions and other things that we have set up,” White said. “If not, then we need to look at it seriously because it’s a serious issue right now.”

It’s a debate that has divided the legislature, even among Republicans themselves. Senator Mark Pody (R-Lebanon) was one of several who voted against the bill.

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“If they’re homeless, they’re going to live somewhere, and if they can’t do it on public property, they have to go on private property,” Pody said. “It just shifts the problem from one situation to another.”

The law went into effect without addressing the affordable housing crisis or creating a place for the homeless. It will be up to municipalities to make these decisions, in addition to deciding whether to enforce the law at all.

“We’ve heard that it could be enforced sporadically, and I don’t agree with that type of enforcement for any law,” Pody said. “When we pass a law, it must be enforced equally across the state and by whoever enforces it.”

It’s nerve wracking for those actually affected. Local governments could decide to enforce the law at any time.

“It seemed like we just wanted to tell people they’re not welcome here,” Hester said. “Nashville wasn’t like that, Tennessee wasn’t like that.”

Additionally, Hester acknowledged that the recidivism rate, or the rate at which people are reincarcerated, is about 46% here in Tennessee.

“Every time there is an unintended consequence of a new crime or something like that. It’s another hurdle for us to get them out of homelessness,” she said. “If you try to get out of homelessness one, two or three times and it keeps happening and someone keeps putting up a barrier in front of you, eventually you’ll stop trying.”

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For what it’s worth, Gov. Bill Lee (R-Tennessee) said he disagreed with the legislation, saying at the time it passed the state congress, “I think there’s a better way.”

However, he did not veto it, which allowed the bill to go into effect.

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