Nadeen Bender stands outside her tent at a homeless encampment in Phoenix, Arizona, US on December 18, 2020. [Photo/Agencies]

At least three states — Texas, Arizona and Tennessee — are considering legislation to restrict or ban homeless camps on public property, citing health and safety concerns.

In Texas, bills in the House and Senate would make camping in an unapproved public place a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $500.

During a hearing Monday, Texas state Senator Dawn Buckingham, a Republican who wrote the bill, said: “We as a state act to make sure that our public spaces are safe and that our homeless population is taken care of. The situation has simply gotten out of control.”

The Democrats attempted to amend the bill to decrease the penalty.

“What I’m concerned about is folks that can’t pay these fines and they are caught in the system and they get deeper and deeper in the hole,” Democratic state Representative Barbara Gervin-Hawkins said. She said that by imposing a “fine that they can’t pay, we are setting people up for failure”.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler criticized the bills, according to The Texas Tribune.

“All SB 987 does is impose possible jail and fines for those without homes. At best, it will force those without shelter to hide, and that’s even less safe,” Adler said in a statement. “We can’t go back to the failed policies of the past that we know don’t work, like threatening jail and fines to make people move — when there’s nowhere for those people to move to.”

In Tennessee, where an existing law bans homeless encampments on state-owned property, lawmakers are working on a bill to expand the ban to all public property.

The Equal Access to Public Property Act of 2012 in Tennessee makes it a felony for anyone to camp on state-owned property not designated for camping use.

The new bill substitutes the term “state-owned land” with “public property” so that the regulations on camping and soliciting would be widened to include property owned by local governments.

Violators in Tennessee would face much lighter punishment than the proposed Texas regulation. The bill states that a person in violation would receive a warning for the first offense, and a fine of $50 and 20 to 40 hours of community service for subsequent offenses.

Tennessee state Senator Paul Bailey said it is for the public good, according to Newsweek. “This is totally about public safety for all Tennessee citizens, including our homeless population. We just want to make sure that everyone remains safe on our public roads as well as public right-of-ways.”

Others views it differently.

“Already, unhoused people cannot sleep on private property or state property without violating existing law,” the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee said in a statement. “If this proposed legislation passes and homeless people are barred from sleeping on locally owned property as well, then people who cannot find shelter cannot sleep without breaking the law.”

In Arizona, a bill would create a sanctioned area for homeless camping and make it illegal for people to camp or sleep on the streets.

The Cicero Institute, a Texas-based think tank that strives to find “entrepreneurial solutions to public problems”, wrote the bill based on research into homelessness polices across the United States, according to azcentral.com.

The bill’s goal is to get homeless people out of unsafe conditions on the streets and into substance abuse or mental health treatment programs, said Judge Glock, the think tank’s senior policy adviser.

“The real problem is people in these encampments are in the lowest point in their life, and when they’re on their own, it tends to only get worse and tends to unfortunately end in death,” Glock said.

The Arizona bill would authorize the state to create designated camping areas for the homeless on state land, with access to water, electricity and bathrooms. Residents of the areas may be required to attend substance-abuse treatment or mental health services.

The bill would put cities and towns at risk of losing state public safety grants if they don’t ban street camping in public places. It would essentially force homeless people into state-designated camping areas.

It also would require cities that have a higher per capita rate of unsheltered homeless people than the state average to dedicate up to 25 percent of their state public safety grants to establish homeless outreach teams.

According to newly released data by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, in 2020 the US homeless population was 580,466, with 61 percent living in sheltered accommodation. More than half of all unsheltered homeless people — 51 percent — are in California. The three cities with the highest homeless populations are New York, Los Angeles and Seattle.