Is it a crime to sleep in the woods?

Sandra ClarkEast Knox, Our Town Neighbors

Short answer: Yes, unless you’re a bear.

On private property, you are trespassing and subject to arrest. And the most recent TN General Assembly criminalized camping or doing a “sit-in” on public property. The penalty, if convicted, is a Class E felony, which carries a possible sentence of 1 to 6 years in prison and a fine up to $3,000.

Knoxville Police Department collaborates with the city and various agencies and nonprofits to connect homeless people with housing.

Sgt. Thomas Clinton heads KPD’s team – himself and one officer. “We walk a thin line to protect the rights of the homeless population along with the rights of property owners,” he said at Town Hall East. “We make very few arrests.” Previous stories here and here.

If you’ve got a complaint, call 311, he said. Clinton’s team will visit the location. “In the case of established camps, we give them 72 hours to remove their items.” Those with a simple backpack are encouraged to leave immediately.

If the people do not leave, they are subject to arrest and the city’s public works crew will remove personal property and debris from the site.

Homelessness alone is not a crime. Officers sometimes triage individuals in the field.

Alternatives to arrest include:

  • Reuniting with family or friends out of town. “If they need money for a ticket, we’ll give it to them,” said Clinton.
  • The McNabb Center, which provides services for individuals experiencing a psychiatric crisis. It’s open 24 hours a day at 865-539-2409.
  • Knox Area Rescue Ministries: Rescue/Emergency Services at KARM focus on providing basic needs – food, clothing, shelter and safety – for those in crisis.

Clinton has a list of additional short-term resources.

Lawbreakers go to jail or might be diverted to what’s called BEE-HUCK, the Behavioral Health Urgent Care Center on Ball Camp Pike. It’s open 24/7 at 865-539-2409. Former Atty. Gen. Randy Nichols advocated for the program, which houses people who have committed low-level, non-violent crimes for about three days. While there, the people are connected with mental health professionals and other resources.

Tomorrow, we’ll try to catch up with some of the Town Hall East members for their reaction.

 

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