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The unhoused population in Tennessee is facing new restrictions around sleeping

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

People experiencing homelessness in Tennessee could soon face prison time for sleeping outside. As Samantha Max of member station WPLN reports, a bill that is close to becoming law adds serious criminal charges for camping on state and private property.

SAMANTHA MAX, BYLINE: Rebecca Lowe wants her park back. She lives near Brookmeade Park in West Nashville, where many people without shelter have made the wooded space their home. At a Senate committee meeting this month, she shared photos of tents and garbage and urged lawmakers to pass a bill to outlaw these encampments.

REBECCA LOWE: They've literally taken over our park for their exclusive use and kept us from enjoying it for years - years I will never get back.

MAX: The measure updates a 2012 law passed during the Occupy Wall Street movement. Back then, Tennessee made it a misdemeanor to camp on state property. In 2020, legislators stiffened the penalties. That's when protesters camped outside the statehouse for two months straight to protest racism after George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis. Now the state could strengthen the law once again.

EDDIE FARRIS: Staying on the property and destroying it and having other things go on is simply not an option.

MAX: Eddie Farris is the president of the Tennessee Sheriffs' Association. A local mayor in his county started pushing the issue last year. Farris says the number of houseless people in the community has grown recently, and residents have been complaining. The sheriff says he doesn't want to arrest people, just to have an opportunity to help them. It's unclear exactly how.

The law would make it a misdemeanor to camp on an interstate exit or under a bridge. It would be a felony to camp on public property. That means up to six years in prison and a $3,000 fine.

INDIA PUNGARCHER: A felony is a very, very serious offense.

MAX: India Pungarcher with the advocacy group Open Table Nashville says this measure would only make it harder for people to get jobs and housing if they're arrested. At last count, more than 7,200 Tennesseans had no home, and more than a third of them were unsheltered.

PUNGARCHER: If we want to end or address homelessness in our state, we can't keep pushing people around. People have to have a place to exist. And this law does absolutely nothing to address homelessness.

MAX: Governor Bill Lee expressed some hesitation about the 2020 measure that increased penalties for camping a couple years ago, but he signed it into law anyway. He hasn't said if he supports the latest bill.

For NPR News, I'm Samantha Max in Nashville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Samantha Max covers criminal justice for WPLN and joins the newroom through the Report for America program. This is her second year with Report for America: She spent her first year in Macon, Ga., covering health and inequity for The Telegraph and macon.com.