Bristol, VA

Is This War on the Homeless, or Handling Public Safety Concerns in the Twin-cities

John M. Dabbs

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Homeless camp in Johnson City, TennesseeJohn Dabbs/Photographer

Tennessee felony

The "twin-cities" are dealing with blowback from a new Tennessee law that went into effect on July 1, 2022 making it illegal to camp on Tennessee public property. The law makes it a class-E felony for anyone camping on state property not expressly designated as a camping area. As the law went into effect the Virginia side of Bristol is grappling with more homeless.

Virginia side of town

An ordinance to ban camping on public sidewalks and rights-of-way is advancing in the Bristol Virginia City Council, passing a reading on Tuesday this week. If the ordinance (22-9) passes on the second reading, camping on any city-owned right-of-way (to include streets, alleys, and sidewalks) can be charged with a misdemeanor.

The proposed ordinance defines camping as "the use of any city-owned street, sidewalk, alley, or other public rights-of-way for living accommodation activities such as sleeping or lying down and making preparations to sleep (including the laying down of bedding, sleeping bag, or other sleeping matter, for the purpose of sleeping) or storing personal belongings or making any fire or using any tent or shelter or other structure."

The ordinance makes allowances for being in the right of way when:

  1. On such street, sidewalk, alley, or other public rights-of-way because of a medical emergency;
  2. Participating in or viewing a parade, festival, permitted public event, performance, rally, demonstration, or other similar activity;
  3. Sitting within a bus stop zone while waiting for public or private transportation;
  4. Sleeping in a motor vehicle, or
  5. Camping on a public sidewalk, alley, or other public rights-of-way as part of an event approved in writing by the City Manager or his or her designee, or
  6. Operating or patronizing a licensed business or establishment with approved outdoor seating adjoining the physical structure of the business.

More information with the full text of the proposed ordinance can be viewed here.

Blame

Anthony Farnum, Mayor of Bristol, Virginia, says the city is seeing more homelessness and says the Tennessee law may be to blame.

Captain Maynard Ratcliff was quoted by WJHL as saying they've seen an increase in calls related to homelessness in the past few years. "A big part of it is in hte downtown area, but we're seeing it everywhere ... it's spread out..."

Is homelessness the problem?

We remember the homeless man found dead in March of 2022 in freezing cold temperatures. Non-profit agencies in Bristol and the region encourage the homeless to seek help, and shelter during inclement weather.

The Salvation Army, and police departments are glad to point people in the direction of help and put them in contact with organizations who can help them. Unfortunately, many homeless people are temporarily homeless and do not seek help for one reason or another. There is also a portion of the homeless who have mental health issues, and are weary of others. These are often the ones who inadvertantly cause problems for local businesses as they set up camp in areas closer to people.

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Homeless beggar in Johnson City, TennesseeJohn Dabbs/Photographer

Help

There are many people and groups in the community who work closely with the homeless. They believe criminalizing the homeless is not the answer to the issue, and could prevent some from getting out of their current situation. - It is difficult for somone convicted of a crime to get a job.

Mayor Farnum calls camping on in public right of ways a public safety issue, yet he said the city will consider the impact on the homeless population in discussions with community leaders. The ordinance proposed will be brought up again at the next city council meeting for its final reading.

It is unclear when the mayor and community leaders with gather to discuss the ordinance and its impact on the homelessness in the city, and the region.

Tourism

Will the ordinance impact tourism? Removing campers from the public rights-of-way will likely make visitors feel more at ease in Bristol, but will it move them off of public areas into private areas or push them into other communities where they'll have less access to resources and the help they need?

With an operating casino now in the Bristol, Virginia, will this lead to an increase in the transient population or homelessness as people get down on their luck? Studies do not appear to support homelessness as a result of the casino - but the sheer volume of people coming into the city may make it a draw for people of all walks of life, as the project continues to unfold and grow.

The ordinance, as well as the Tennessee law, may give officials some help in controlling demonstrators who want to "camp out" in public parks and the public right-of-way as they did during "Occupy Wall Street" in 2011.

There are pros and cons to the legislation and ordinances. It is up to the public, and governing officials to see that the people are not forgotten and are served and treated justly.

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An outdoor enthusiast with a passion for travel and adventure. John is a professional consultant and photojournalist.

Bristol, TN
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