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Lindsay Kee, 615-320-7142

April 22, 2022

Legislation Makes Sleeping on Any Public Property a Felony

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Today, the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee urged Governor Bill Lee to veto HB 978/SB 1610, the bill that would criminalize unhoused people by making sleeping on any public property a felony.                                               

“This cruel legislation raises serious constitutional concerns, while doing nothing to address homelessness,” said Hedy Weinberg, ACLU of Tennessee executive director. “Unhoused people need affordable housing, not criminal charges that actually make it even harder for them to get housing. This repugnant bill would be a stain on our state, and we urge Governor Lee to veto it.”

HB 978/SB 1610 would expand Tennessee’s current ban on “camping” to cover all public property, including land owned by local governments. This legislation could subject unhoused people to six years in prison, a fine of up to $3,000, and collateral consequences such as loss of voting rights and obstacles to employment and housing opportunities.                                                               
ACLU-TN’s letter calls the bill “a heartless approach to the problem of homelessness,” and asserts that it “raises serious constitutional concerns under the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.” Explaining that unhoused people in Tennessee do not have any legal alternatives to sleeping on public property when shelters are full, the letter accuses the bill of “criminaliz[ing] unhoused people for simply existing.”                                                                                                      
The letter asks Governor Lee to show “empathy and compassion” by vetoing HB 978/SB 1610. Doing otherwise, according to the letter, would punish unhoused community members for sleeping, a practice that the letter deems “delusionally cruel.”