Vera Institute of Justice Statement on Tennessee’s Felony Camping Law

Tennessee is poised to double down on using the criminal legal system to punish the poor by making it a felony to camp on public lands. When the law goes into effect on Friday, July 1, it will swiftly expand the criminalization of Tennesseans experiencing housing insecurity. The law's effective date comes just three months after the In Our Backyards team at the Vera Institute of Justice released a report in partnership with Free Hearts entitled The Criminalization of Poverty in Tennessee, which examines how people are punished for being poor across urban and rural Tennessee, then made poorer by state and local justice systems that put a price tag on freedom and lock people out of employment, housing, and participation in democracy.

Tennessee is the first state in the United States to enact such a law. The effects of the current money bail and probation systems, which frequently force the poor to choose between paying for rent, food, or housing or paying the courts and privately owned businesses that profit from the criminal legal system- outstanding criminal debt, will only be exacerbated.

Survey results detailed in The Criminalization of Poverty in Tennessee report revealed that 21 percent of respondents from across Tennessee identified as homeless or housing insecure and 70 percent of respondents were living below the poverty line. Many unhoused people in Tennessee are already struggling under the weight of accumulating fines for vagrancy, jaywalking, and other low-level offenses.

The additional threat of a felony charge for public camping is likely to push unhoused Tennesseans into deeper desperation and precarity. Having a felony on your record makes it harder to qualify for housing, eliminates many employment opportunities, limits public assistance, and creates barriers to civic participation. To address homelessness and poverty, Tennessee lawmakers should focus on enacting laws that support the resilience of people and communities and on eliminating policies that create an uneven playing field between the rich and everyone else. Investing in housing, education, health care, behavioral health, access to affordable food, and job training will help ensure that all Tennesseans are able to live safely and with dignity—doling out felonies for being homeless will not.

About the Vera Institute of Justice

The Vera Institute of Justice is powered by hundreds of advocates, researchers, and policy experts working to transform the criminal legal and immigration systems until they’re fair for all. Founded in 1961 to advocate for alternatives to money bail in New York City, Vera is now a national organization that partners with impacted communities and government leaders for change. We develop just, antiracist solutions so that money doesn’t determine freedom; fewer people are in jails, prisons, and immigration detention; and everyone is treated with dignity. Vera’s headquarters is in Brooklyn, New York, with offices in Washington, DC, New Orleans, and Los Angeles. For more information, visit