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After lawmaker draws Hitler comparison, Tennessee homeless bill heads to governor's desk

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A bill that targets Tennessee's homeless population is now headed to Governor Bill Lee's desk.

After extensive debate, which included an unexpected reference to Adolf Hitler, state senators passed the bill 22 to 10 on Wednesday.

The bill expands punishments for unauthorized camping on state-owned property to all public property, which is a Class E felony.

But the bill is what's known as 'permissive,' which means the punishment is not mandatory. It just gives local law enforcement permission to punish people who are homeless at their discretion.

Critics, including Democratic state lawmakers, say this bill is criminalizing homelessness, which they say only perpetuates the cycle of poverty.

It just breaks my heart that we are criminalizing people who have no where else to go,' said Sen. Brenda Gilmore (D-Nashville). and if you take and incarcerate their parents, then I think that again only multiplies the issue of taking their parents away from these children simply because they are poor.

Meanwhile, supporters say being homeless doesn't have to mean you're trapped.

One lawmaker went to so far to cite Hitler, who spent two years of his early life homeless in Vienna in the early 20th century. Watch below:

"I wanna give you a little history lesson on homelessness. In 1910, Hitler decided to live on the streets for a while. So for two years, Hitler lived on the streets and practice his oratory and body language and how to connect with the masses and then went on to lead a life that got him in the history books. So a lot of these people, it's not a dead-end. They can come out of this. These homeless camps and have a productive life... or in Hitler's case a very unproductive life. I support this bill," said State Sen. Frank Nicely (R-Strawberry Plains).

The bill would also make it a Class C misdemeanor for someone to solicit or camp on or near highways or under bridges and overpasses.

For the actions that could result in a misdemeanor, the bill says a person will receive a warning citation for a first offense.

Next offenses will be punishable by either a $50 fine and a sentence to 20-40 hours of community service work or 20-40 hours of litter removal.

An amendment on this bill says it does not apply to people selling locally produced material to better benefit themselves.

Wendy Winters from the Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition told us on Tuesday that these punishments could be particularly harmful to people experiencing homelessness.

“If someone is convicted of a felony because of homelessness, I mean, that could potentially ruin someone's life," Winters says.

Watch our previous story here.

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