Across Tennessee, pitching a tent on public land outside of designated camp sites is now a felony offense. Tennessee is the first state in the nation to take such a draconian step, but it's just one of a number of states essentially criminalizing homelessness in an effort to reduce the number of unhoused people sleeping on the streets, at bus stops and in city parks.
"They're trying to run us out of Nashville," says Momma V as she stood in the mud outside her tent pitched on the banks of the Cumberland River. "We're out here homeless. We're trying to struggle to make it and they're just trying to make it worse on all of us by criminalizing it."
A felony conviction would make it even harder for an unhoused person to find a home or a job. "It's a huge deal," says Lindsey Krinks, an outreach worker with Open Table in Nashville. "A felony offense carries up to six years in jail, a $3,000 fine and the loss of voting rights."
Similar bills are now under consideration in Arizona and Georgia. Similar bills were introduced, but failed, in Oklahoma and Wisconsin. A similar bill was passed in Texas last year. A think tank in Austin, founded and funded by a tech billionaire, is the inspiration for much of this new legislation.
"The goal of that isn't to criminalize someone," says Judge Glock, senior director of policy and research at The Cicero Institute in Austin, who wrote the model bill that the news laws are based upon. "But you need for someone in a severe mental illness, or sobriety or substance use crisis, some sort of stick as well as a carrot to move people onto the next step."
'It's a felony to survive,' says woman living on state land
Later this month another Cicero Institute-inspired law takes effect in Missouri. Camping on public land will be a misdemeanor there, not a felony. But local governments that don't enforce the camping ban could see their state funding slashed. And money previously earmarked to build permanent housing for the unhoused will be diverted to treatment programs and to build state-sanctioned temporary homeless encampments.
"This is a push to put the most vulnerable people, who are citizens, into internment camps," says Eric Tars, legal director of the National Homelessness Law Center. "What we really need to be focusing on in Tennessee, for example, right now: The state minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. You'd have to make more than double that to be able to afford even a studio apartment in many parts of the state."
In Nashville, average rents have climbed over 40% in just the past five years.
Taneesha Green, who has lived for a year on a sliver of state land on a Nashville roadside, says the police have already told her she needs to move on.
"They said it will be an action. We will go to jail," she says. "It's a felony to survive." Green says she has nowhere else to go.
Testifying before lawmakers in Georgia, Glock said denizens of homeless encampments need a simple message: "We can offer you alternatives, but you have to move," he said on the state house floor. "You need that. Both the stick and the carrot. And this bill provides those."
Many homeless activists say they do not believe that a "stick" can persuade people to pull themselves out of homelessness.
"It's hard to pull yourself up by the bootstraps when you don't even have boots on," says Howard Allen, who was homeless in Nashville for 17 years.
Glock says ramshackle homeless encampments are bad for the housed, but also bad for the unhoused.
"This is mainly about helping the homeless themselves. Clearly leaving them in these environments is not good for them," he says. "This is not about helping just the cities."
'We know what's not working,' says Cicero Institute official
The Cicero Institute was founded in 2017 to apply, according to its website, "The innovative energy of America's leading technologists and entrepreneurs to broken systems in the public sector."
It's named for Marcus Cicero, a Roman statesman who died more than 2,000 years ago, and funded by Joe Lonsdale, a young tech billionaire and a colleague of Peter Thiel, the right-leaning political activist and entrepreneur.
"We have no influence except the power of persuasion," Glock says. "We're merely saying, 'Here seems to be a better idea. We know what's not working.'"
Something called "Housing First" has become the primary approach to tackling homelessness across the United States. The basic philosophy is this: Find someone a permanent home, not a shelter bed. Offer but don't mandate addiction and mental health treatment. The rest should follow. Many studies support that approach. The Cicero Institute does not.
"It seemed like it just brought everyone in when you try to build free homes," said Lonsdale, Cicero's founder, on an episode of his podcast "American Optimist." "Then we'll have lots of mentally ill people in small homes in our cities, and they're still kind of in a bad situation."
Rising rents make it difficult to house the homeless
Proponents of Housing First acknowledge the process is not perfect, but they say that's because of unenthusiastic implementation.
"Housing First is documented to have 90-plus percent retention rates when it works. But we haven't funded it at the adequate levels," says Tars from the National Homelessness Law Center. "And in the meantime, everybody's seen that the rents are going up all across the country."
Including here in Nashville, where luxury condos are popping up as rents rise in a city rebranding itself as a tourist destination. Nashville is trying to be to music what Las Vegas is to gambling: "Nashvegas."
"I came here right after my daughter was born and I pushed her in her stroller," says Rebecca Lowe, a professional singer, at the gates of Brookmeade Park in her leafy Nashville neighborhood. "I thought better and never came back, and that was more than 10 years ago."
Walking along a meandering path through what was once a riverside idyll with a little Civil War history on the side, we meet a woman who is clearly high, smell human feces and see mounds of trash, hundreds of shopping carts and a few dozen tents scattered among the trees. Lowe founded a group called Reclaim Brookmeade Park.
"Nothing has been working. Nothing has worked," she says. Lowe now supports the criminalization of camping.
The new bill in Tennessee, which does just that, was sponsored by state Sen. Paul Bailey. He represents a rural district an hour or two east of the state capital. Bailey told us on the phone that the impetus was constituents complaining about burgeoning homeless encampments.
"You can imagine an elected official, a constituent comes and says there's an encampment on my corner, it scares my kids," says Tars, the homeless advocate. "Your choice is either to deal with this deficit of deeply affordable housing ... or you can pass a quick law saying it's illegal to be on that corner."
Bailey declined an offer of a formal interview, but during a debate about the bill said this: "This bill requires law enforcement give a documented warning for the first incident and any punishment thereafter is up to the prosecutorial discretion of the district attorney. That's an explanation of the amendment."
The bill passed in the state senate by 22 votes to 10.
"I think this is sort of putting a band aid on cancer in a way," state Sen. Heidi Campbell, a Democrat from Nashville, said during that debate. "I think we need to actually address the fundamental root problem.
"It just breaks my heart that we're criminalizing people who don't have anywhere else to go," said state Sen. Brenda Gilmore, another Democrat from Nashville. "We are tasked in the Bible (with) defending the rights of the poor. So, for that reason I will not be voting in favor of this bill."
Some park dwellers reject shelters
Back at Brookmeade Park, Lowe tells us she hopes just the threat of arrest will persuade non-profit groups to provide more housing and fewer services, like food and water, that she believes perpetuate the problem. She says she hopes the threat will force the homeless to help themselves.
"If you give them a choice of staying in the park or getting help, they almost always choose to stay in the park," she says, adding she would support building permanent houses for these people but that's not practical.
"That's going to take years to build," she says. In the meantime, she says, the people living in Brookmeade Park should be moved to temporary shelters.
Many unhoused people do not want to move to shelters, Momma V among them.
"I can't have my dogs with me" in the shelter, she says. "And I'm not giving them up."
"I was in a temporary shelter," says Allen, the homeless man now turned homeless advocate. "And I didn't like it. Because you are not treated as a human being."
Allen, after 17 years sleeping outside, now has a permanent home.
"When I moved in my house January 11 of last year and they put that key in my hand, I cried," he says. "And then I cried again because my brothers and sisters deserve the same thing that I have. Housing. And we can do it."
But for now, there's no agreement on how to accomplish that goal.
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