Miranda Atnip lost her home during a coronavirus pandemic after her boyfriend left and she fell behind with the bills. Living in a car, the 34-year-old girl worries every day about getting money for food, finding a place to wash and save money for an apartment where three children can live with her again.

Now she has a new concern: Tennessee is going to be the first U.S. state in which setting up camp on local public property, such as in parks, will become a crime.

“Honestly, it will be difficult,” Atnip said of the law, which comes into force on July 1. “I don’t know where else to go.”

In 2020, Tennessee had already criminalized the location of the camp on most state property. Supporting the expansion, Senator Paul Bailey noted that no one has been convicted under the law, and said he also does not expect the law to be enforced. So is Luke Eldridge, a man who has worked with the homeless in Cookeville and supports Bailey’s plan – in part because he hopes it will encourage people who care for the homeless to work with him on long-term solutions.

The law requires violators to receive a warning at least 24 hours before arrest. The crime carries up to six years in prison and deprivation of the right to vote.

It will be up to the prosecutors … if they want to commit a crime, ”Bailey said. “But that will only happen if people really don’t want to move.”

After several years of steady decline, the number of homeless people in the United States began to grow in 2017. A survey conducted in January 2020, for the first time, found that the number of homeless people exceeds the number of those in shelters. The problem was exacerbated by COVID-19 when shelters limited capacity.

Public pressure to do anything with the increase in the number of highly prominent homeless camps has prompted even many traditionally liberal cities to clean up. Although camping is typically regulated by local vagrancy laws, last year Texas imposed a nationwide ban. Municipalities that do not comply with the ban risk losing public funding. Several other states have introduced similar bills, but Tennessee is the only one where camping is considered a crime.

The Bailey area includes Cookville, a city of about 35,000 people between Nashville and Knoxville, where a local newspaper records growing concerns about the growing number of homeless people. Last year, the Herald-Citizen reported that between 2019 and 2020, the number of complaints on the grounds almost doubled from 157 to 300. In 2021, the city installed signs encouraging residents to donate to charities instead of floors. And the City Council twice considered bans on manipulation.

The Republican lawmaker admits that complaints from Cookville have caught his attention. City council members told him Nashville was bringing his homeless here, Bailey said. These are rumors that many have heard in Cookeville, and Bailey seems to believe. When Nashville recently fenced off a downtown park for renovation, the homeless who visited it disappeared. “Where did they go?” Bailey asked.

Atnip laughed at the idea of ​​people coming from Nashville. She was living in nearby Monterey when she lost her home and had to send her children to live with their parents. She said she had received some state aid but not enough to get on her feet. At one point she received a voucher for housing, but could not find a host who would accept it. She and her new husband saved enough to fund a used car, and worked as delivery drivers until it broke down. Now she fears that they will lose the car and will be forced to move to a tent, but does not know where they will put it.

“It seems that if one thing goes wrong, it’s like snowballs,” Atnip said. “We made money with DoorDash. Our bills were paid. We saved. Then the car drives the hood and everything goes wrong.

Eldridge, who has worked with the homeless Cookville for ten years, is an unexpected supporter of the ban on camping. He said he wants to continue helping the homeless, but some people are not motivated to improve their situation. Some, he said, are addicted to drugs and some are hiding from law enforcement. Eldridge estimates that there are more or less 60 people living in Kukville, and he knows them all.

“Most of them have been here for several years and have never sought help with housing,” he said.

Eldridge knows his position is unpopular with other defenders.

“The big problem with this law is that it does not solve the problem of homelessness. In fact, it will exacerbate the problem, “said Bobby Watts, director general of the National Homeless Health Council.” Having a crime on your record makes it harder to claim certain types of housing, harder to get a job, harder to claim benefits. “

Not everyone wants to be in a crowded shelter with a curfew, but people will leave the streets when the right opportunities are available, Watts said. Homelessness among U.S. military veterans, for example, has nearly halved in the past decade thanks to a combination of housing subsidies and social services.

“It’s not magic,” he said. “What works for this population works for every population.”

Adam Atnip, who is homeless and lives in his car, takes money from the driver when he plays, on May 10, 2022 in Cookeville, Tenn.

Tina Lomax, who runs the Seeds of Hope of Tennessee company in nearby Sparta, was once homeless with her children. To many people from being on the street, only one salary or one tragedy, she said. Even in her community of 5,000 people it is very difficult to find affordable housing.

“If you have a crime – holy smoke!” she said.

Eldridge, like Senator Bailey, said he did not expect many people to be prosecuted for sleeping on state property. “I can promise that they will not gather the homeless here,” he said of Cookville’s law enforcement. But he does not know what could happen in other parts of the state.

He hopes the new law will encourage some opponents to work with him on long-term solutions for the homeless Kukvil. If they all worked together, it would mean “a lot of resources and possible sources of funding to help those in need,” he said.

But other lawyers do not think that threatening people with a crime is a good way to help them.

“Criminalizing homelessness just makes people criminals,” Watts said.

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