Creating a new place for Nashville's homeless

Sunday, October 10, 2010 at 11:30pm

On the muggy morning of July 3, 30 homeless Tent City residents and more than a dozen church volunteers took to an Antioch hillside for moving day. The campsite was shut down due to codes violations. Cigarette butts were scraped out of the dirt. Teams of two folded tents. One epic pile of trash was burned.

Moving days are always hectic. The plus side is most come with a final destination. This one ended with a to-be-continued: There was no place to move the group.

Doug Sanders, a homeless outreach worker and minister, took many of them to the basement of his church, Otter Creek Church of Christ in Brentwood, and offered some reassurance. Representatives from the mayor’s office, Chamber of Commerce and the Metro Homelessness Commission had agreed to come together over the next 90 days to start discussing an upgraded replacement of Tent City tentatively called “The Village.”

Three months later, that idea is still in its infancy. Sanders is encouraged by some positive response from the city.

“I’m very hopeful,” he says.

Still, the process is going slower than supporters would like. They’d hoped to have a first phase ready to go before winter.

Sanders says during the city’s recent homeless count he spotted many individuals who would make good candidates for The Village, but are instead camping or living on the street.

‘The Village’

The original Tent City site along the Cumberland River flooded in May. Even before the flood, Sanders envisioned retiring Tent City for a new, transitional housing site with 65 one-room shelters that look like storage sheds rather than tents, and that offers ground rules instead of lawlessness.

“We want The Village to be different,” Sanders says. “We hope to acclimate people to be re-engaged into a broad-based community.”

If built, The Village — which is a working moniker — will house residents for six to nine months. They will be required to work toward permanent housing. Sanders says anyone who wants to roll in, drink for a few days and move on, won’t be welcome.

Sanders estimates it will cost $1.5 million to build, and he wants to raise all the money with private donations. He’d like to get a network of churches to sponsor each shed, providing financial support for the structure, which he considers spiritual support for tenants.

Dignity Village, in Portland, Ore., is the model. In 2001, that city agreed to allow a transitional housing site on an unused parcel of public land seven miles from downtown. It has sheds, electricity, bathrooms and kitchen facilities. And it is financed with private donations.

Sanders would like to find a piece of land closer than seven miles from downtown, since that is where most homeless services are. He has his eye on one potential location.

Inner City Ministry, located off Hermitage Avenue, neighbors the old Tent City site and was also flooded in May. Buck Dozier chairs Inner City Ministry’s Board of Directors.

“I’m open to negotiations on that property,” Dozier says. The agency has already moved their offices, and they’re interested in a larger piece of land away from the river.

The road ahead

That the Inner City Ministry property is in a flood plain could be the first hurdle to building a new, permanent encampment there. In addition, Metro Codes Department, and ultimately Metro Council, would have to waive codes restrictions for the site.

Howard Gentry has coordinated meetings between Sanders and the city. He’s CEO of the Nashville Chamber Public Benefit Foundation and a Metro Homelessness Commission member. Back in July, Gentry addressed a commission meeting, saying conversations had begun. His message today remains the same.

“We are making progress,” he says.

The Village is not a Metro Homelessness Commission project. The commission’s focus is on addressing the shortage of permanent affordable housing.

After the flood, the commission helped free up 70 Section 8 vouchers for Tent City residents. That was significant. Right now, the waiting list is 600 deep. So far, according to the Metro housing department, 37 of the 70 applications have been approved and 12 have been put to use. Even those approved for vouchers typically wait two to three months before keys are handed over. That’s where transitional housing comes in.

It’s the middle ground between homelessness and a permanent place. Most of the existing transitional housing in Nashville targets specific populations — for instance, ex-offenders, the mentally ill and victims of domestic violence.

The Village, as it’s drawn theoretically, would be open to any homeless adults, including couples and those with pets. Individuals struggling with alcoholism who don’t want to go to rehab could also find housing help.

The idea makes Rusty Lawrence a little nervous. Lawrence is executive director of Urban Housing Solutions, a nonprofit that maintains 750 units of affordable housing. He’s housed many former Tent City residents and says it’s important to have a place to live. But he’s seen those struggling with alcoholism getting into frequent fights and acting in ways that often lead to eviction.

The beauty of a transitional housing program with a rehab component, he says, is that it usually leads to stability.

“There’s a programmatic structure there,” Lawrence says. “You start out one person and come out a different person.”

Sanders hasn’t decided what the rules regarding drinking will be for the Village concept. But his mission is to give shelter to homeless people who are serious about getting off the street and may not have anywhere else to go. Some place with community, walls and a door that’s not a zipper.

7 Comments on this post:

By: on 10/11/10 at 7:29

These are good efforts to help solve a complex and difficult situation. Thank you to those who are helping.

By: tbulgarino on 10/11/10 at 9:37


Seven miles from downtown sounds right. A bonus would be the village would be much closer to Brentwood and OTCC's Doug Sanders and church congregants could service the 'down and out' per their own calling.

Seven miles away works fine for the Oregon 'model' and the reporter should have added agreeing to the distant seven mile location was the only way the project won city council approval.

Nashville's leaders would be cutting off their own legs and the progress of downtown development to locate a homeless city next to a redevelopment area hoping to recruit conventions (hello MCC 1/4 mile away) and business (hello emma < 1/4 mile away) and sell condos (hello Rolling Mill Hill next door) and for extra sh1ts and giggles a quarter mile away from a new downtown riverfront part hoping to attract families and restaurants....

An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.
- Winston Churchill

By: DustyU on 10/11/10 at 10:30

I think Dean should donate the fairgrounds for this project.
It would fit right in with the neighborhood of crack dealers and worn out hookers that live around there now.
You know, the ones that hate racing and flea markets and state fairs

By: cval on 10/11/10 at 10:58

A long time ago, the military used to use quonset huts as an inexpensive way to house soldiers and Marines. They could be assembled or deconstructed and moved as necessary. Can we not take lessons from the past to reduce the cost? Why must we spend $Millions just to house a few when we can house hundreds for much less? Another option could be discussed to house homeless in cities with nearby rivers. Perhaps the US Navy could donate a de-commissioned and obsolete ship. I have visited the battleship North Carolina in Wilmington, N.C. and the Texas at San Jacinto near Houston. These ships could house 1500-2000 people. The ship would be disabled but the laundry facility (updated) could provide clean clothes for the homeless, run by them after being trained as well as a business doing contract work, and schools of job training can be set up in the engine room, and for basic literacy, etc. The mess hall and galley can be staffed by homeless to serve each other. They could become totally self-supported and self-patrolled for security, etc. With a little creativity and an attitude of "can do" instead of "Oh, we can't do that", much can be accomplished. The only stumbling block are vultures who pretend to want to help but are only interested in lining their own pockets. Be creative.

By: localboy on 10/11/10 at 11:13

The mayor has been itching to get the state to do something with Sulpher Dell...this should be right in his wheelhouse. And no awkward deals with private developers to explain or defend.

By: Carol Williams on 10/11/10 at 4:24

Seven miles from downtown is a great idea in an area providing space for needed services and housing on the same acreage. Many suburban churches have land, kitchens, buses, gyms, with room for service agencies and temporary housing.

Overly populated urban neighborhoods (many with high crime , multiple beer markets, and available street drugs) are not a good fit for people who have no place to sleep and in many cases are mentally ill or addicted. Check the cost associated with repeat offenders on the street. Check the cost of repeat medical calls daily. Clifton Harris can validate the numbers that could go toward housing.

Land out of the inner city with a humane plan for safety and well-being of all involved presents Nashville with a chance to really make a difference. Those called to this service can continue without burdening established urban residential and commercial neighborhoods instead soliciting donations to expand the services away from the inner city. We do not have to hurt one group to help another.

By: yucchhii on 10/13/10 at 12:03

I read a lot of the comments before mine. While I had come to Nashville with the intentions of staying at the Rescue mission for a SHORT while, and getting a job and putting money away to get into my own place, IT DID NOT WORK THAT WAY!! Shortly after arriving in Nashville, I found a job, only to get laid off shortly after. Since then I have "WALKED" all over Nashville looking for work! The Nashville rescue mission is a place that does "NOTHING" to help anyone to get back on their feet..."NOTHING!" They are set up to "KEEP" you there and do NOTHING to help you with your health. They will NOT inform you of anything going on around town that will benifit you. They "LITTERALLY" TRY TO "BREAK" YOUR SPIRIT THERE!!! You on the OUTSIDE see what these people at the rescue mission "WANT YOU TO SEE!!!" Therefore making you think that they are a godsend and that they care! Lol. GIVE ME A BREAK!!! Take it from sombody who stays there!!! As for relocating the mission and all homeless people to a site ANY distance from downtown "IS NOT A GOOD IDEA!" MOST services that would be benificial to homeless are DOWNTOWN! TO MUCH DISTANCE TO WALK!!! Those who are NOT homeless and think they have an answer for this crises, need to experience being HOMELESS in order to KNOW what it's like to TRY GETTING BACK ON YOUR FEET!!!