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Tennessee to make homeless camps on public land a felony

When the bill moved through the legislature, Republican Sen. Paul Bailey acknowledged that “lots of churches” had testified against the bill.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee declined to sign off on a bill criminalizing camping by homeless people and in parks and other local public property, but let it become law without his signature.

The measure the Republican governor declined to sign Tuesday will take effect July 1. Lee had told reporters earlier this week that he was worried about the “unintended consequences” of the bill but added that he was also worried about the “issues of people on public property.”

The new law will add local public property to the existing felony penalties that are possible for camping on state property, as long as the place is not designated for camping. The felony is punishable by up to six years in prison. Felony convictions in Tennessee result in the revocation of an individual’s right to vote.

The penalties for camping on state property were increased from a misdemeanor to a Class E felony in 2020, when Republican lawmakers were responding to overnight protests on Capitol grounds calling for racial justice reform.

The law will also create a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by a $50 fine — which could be waived — and community service, for camping along highways, including under bridges or overpasses, or within an underpass. Violations in those locations would not be limited to overnight hours under the bill. Authorities would need to first offer a warning for people in violation.

When the bill moved through the legislature, Republican Sen. Paul Bailey acknowledged that “lots of churches” had testified against the bill.

“I don’t have the answer for homelessness,” Bailey said. “Those that oppose this legislation, they don’t have all the answers for homelessness. Those that support this legislation, they don’t have all of the answers for homelessness.”

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