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The Neighbors We Left Behind

by Elizabeth Phillips

In 2022, Tennessee passed a law that makes camping on public property a felony. They are the first U.S. state to do so, making it the harshest anti-camping law in the nation. This law has faced criticism from the unhoused community and their advocates as it is seen as inhumane discrimination. Other states are considering following suit, which has sparked a national conversation about issues such as racist policies, affordable housing, and the federal homelessness epidemic. The Neighbors We Left Behind explores the impact of Tennessee’s anti-camping law on those who have been marginalized and discarded from society.

The film initially follows an outreach program, Open Table Nashville, into a local camp. Inhabitants share stories surrounding homelessness and their inability to escape. Many have endured serious injuries from being on the streets. With little to no medical assistance, if law enforcement patrols here, they will struggle to avoid arrest due to their impairments. A felony makes it nearly impossible to obtain employment and qualify for subsidized housing. Like so many others, they are stripped of their civil liberties, one of the few luxuries they have left while struggling to survive without a home or income.

Homelessness can affect anyone, irrespective of their economic status. Dr. Mary Beth Shinn, who is a member of the Affordable Housing Taskforce, researches this problem. Due to the annual lack of pay increases and tripling rent, many residents spend more than half their income on housing, leaving little for essentials. This lack of affordable housing affects more black and brown comm

Several incidents led to House Bill 0978 (HB-0978). Protests led by Occupy Nashville and The People’s Plaza served as catalysts. Eventually, Representative Williams and Senator Bailey expressed on public record that the number of people living on the streets needs addressing. A criminal subcommittee proposed a bill to make camping a felonious offense claiming jail time or forced inpatient treatment as better options. The unhoused state otherwise. While beneficial in theory, released individuals receive little-to-no reintegration support or resources. Despite his concerns, Governor Bill Lee let HB-0978 pass into law. This “solution” has increased camp raids forcing volunteers on call 24/7; yet, they cannot help each occupant. Organizations cannot locate their friends, leaving many without food and resources. Despite frustration, leaders still fight, pleading the case of the voiceless in Washington D.C., and standing up for the rights of the homeless.

Local and national awareness is needed. This systematic process diminishes the self-worth of individuals and leaves them devalued by an entire society. What currently remains a “Tennessee issue” will soon spread if repeal does not occur. We must help those without a home. Viewers will see up close what life is like on the streets now that this bill has been passed, while also analyzing the opposing argument’s reasoning. By doing so, this film intends to shed light on the existing facets of criminalizing unhoused individuals and open viewers’ eyes to the shameful disparity.

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