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Criminalizing homelessness? Fallout feared from anti-Occupy bill

Occupy protesters Anthony Gales, left, Ben Grady, center, and James Martin, right, eat dinner at the campsite on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2012, in Nashville, Tenn.

Legislation passed by Tennessee lawmakers, apparently aimed at shutting the Occupy Nashville camp, could have a chilling effect on free speech and perhaps even criminalize the homeless, housing and civil liberties activists say.

The state's House of Representatives on Monday approved the Senate version of a bill -- the "Equal Access to Public Property Act of 2012" -- which prohibits unauthorized camping -- including sleeping and storing of personal belongings -- on public grounds, and the governor says he will sign it. Violators would face up to 11 months and 29 days in jail and/or a fine of $2,500.

The measure follows an unsuccessful attempt by the state to evict the Occupy protesters from Nashville’s Legislative Plaza in October.

“It chills the spirit of freedom of speech and assembly by targeting a particular form of expression,” said Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee. “When you recognize that the Occupy folks were choosing to camp and put up tents as the very means by which they were expressing their frustration with the government -- to have that then be identified as criminal, challenges their right to political speech.”

The legislation does not specifically refer to the plaza where Occupy protesters have gathered, instead describing public property in one section as "a state park, recreation area, wildlife refuge, historic building, educational institution or natural green space." It notes the legislation is "specifically intended to protect state interests jeopardized by the activity of camping on state property that is not compatible to or designated for such activity."

The broad language poses a major problem for the homeless, said Charles Strobel, founding director of Room in the Inn and its Campus for Human Development, a religious nonprofit that provides services to the homeless in central Tennessee.

“I think it’s what they might refer to as unintended consequences,” he said. "… It’s criminalizing the right to exist as a human being. It’s outlawing homelessness."

Strobel, who has worked with the homeless community for 34 years, described the legislation as "cruel and mean.” He said it will join a number of measures, such as "quality of life" offenses, that the homeless already have to contend with.

"So this is just one of a number of situations that you’re constantly facing with the homeless, that they are being shuffled around and, of course, in this case, they just have to keep walking … God forbid that they stop and rest," he said late Tuesday.

Related story: Tale of a Southern 'Occupy': Nashville aims to bridge political divides

Some homeless had sheltered at Legislative Plaza before the Occupy protesters arrived, since there were only about 1,500 beds available to the city’s estimated more than 4,000 people who need them, Strobel said.

As many as 50 homeless people lived in the Occupy camp at the height of the protest, but that number has dropped to about 10, said Lindsey Krinks, a 27-year-old student at Vanderbilt Divinity School and a homeless advocate who is also an Occupy member.

“A lot of people have cleared off the plaza because they’re so concerned about getting jail time and fines that they can’t pay and having all of their belongings confiscated ... which is really problematic when you are looking at people who have so little to begin with," she said. 

Among those is Nathan Rice, 32, who said he has lived on the streets since 13 and recycles cans for money. He arrived at the Occupy camp in mid-November and said he is "pretty much committed" to the movement.

“It was just a safe place to sleep and people treated me fairly nice,” Rice said of the Occupy camp. "They didn’t look at you as just homeless ... they looked at us as equals.”

One of the legislation's sponsors, Republican Rep. Eric Watson, said in an email that the legislation “does nothing to impact the homeless population” and did not elaborate. He directed msnbc.com to the text of the legislation regarding questions about the bill's intent. 

The other sponsor, Republican Sen. Dolores R. Gresham, did not respond to an email and phone calls from msnbc.com seeking comment by early Wednesday afternoon.

But in an interview with The Associated Press on Monday, she said the purpose was to make the grounds around the Capitol available to all visitors.

AP Photo/Erik Schelzig

Sen. Dolores Gresham introduces her bill seeking to ban unauthorized camping on public property on the Senate floor in Nashville, Tenn., on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2012.

"Certainly that was never the intent that the homeless would be in any way impacted by this bill," the Somerville Republican said.

Health concerns and preservation of state resources are cited in the bill among the reasons to impose the changes.

"It is in the state’s interests to be a good steward of public land and manage and protect it in such a manner as to ensure that future generations of Tennesseans are able to continue to enjoy the natural treasures and rich beauty of this state," the bill said.

While many other Occupy camps have been shuttered across the country using similar regulations since Occupy Wall Street began in September, U.S. District Court Judge Lynn Winmill in Idaho issued a temporary order on Monday allowing Occupy protesters in Boise to keep their tents.

The judge wrote that the camp was in a public place that is "highly visible and physically close to the seat of government, making it a natural forum for political protests." He has not allowed sleeping but said an argument could be made for it as a protected freedom of expression, according to KBOI2.com.

The order was issued in response to a new law signed last week by Idaho's governor intended to remove the protesters from the property surrounding a vacant courthouse where they've camped out since early November, The Associated Press reported.

Criminalization of the homeless in jurisdictions around the country “has become progressively worse over the last couple of years,” said Neil Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless.

“A number of communities are passing ordinances like this to push back against the Occupy movement and when you look at communities, some do it more artfully than others, and this is certainly not in that camp,” he said. “It’s quite apparent that they are constructing this to limit … very distinct behavior and actions.”

Donovan said it was a “flagrant targeting” of a group of individuals and said he thought it was unlikely to stand up in court. When asked how the legislation compared to others on the books, he said it was among "those ordinances that violate people's rights" and was "part of a collective movement" to restrict the rights of those who engage in "reasonable activities."

“Anytime that a state engages in this type of behavior it opens the door and creates a path for other ordinances and other laws that will affect the homeless so we would strongly object to this” kind of legislation, he added.

A separate process is also under way in Tennessee to write new procedures for the use of the plaza amid an ongoing federal lawsuit, filed by the local ACLU, which alleges that the state illegally revised the rules controlling the site last October when it tried to evict the Occupy protesters.

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