As always, already, at 3:45 p.m. Wednesday afternoon, Gallatin Pike at Eastland Avenue was semi-gridlocked with school traffic. Just around the corner, though, at 1034 West Eastland Ave., home to Edgefield Hospital, the Nashville Rehabilitation Hospital and now partly occupied by a small inpatient facility run by the Mental Health Cooperative of Middle Tennessee, the universe felt serene and orderly.
Alas, the bucolic-meadow charms of the mostly vacant ex-hospital turned home for the mentally ill may soon give way to something else entirely: a hardscrabble miniature-fourth-world of makeshift tents and knife fights, a nightly orgy of depravity illuminated by barrel fire and fueled by rubbing alcohol, jug wine and the unrelenting commitment to spoil family fun.
To be fair, that exaggerated image isn’t precisely the one nearby property owner John Stevenson — owner of the American Professional Building, a two-story shopping complex, and, within the building, Steve’s Restaurant, at the corner of Eastland and Gallatin, right next to the hospital — conjures in his newly minted campaign to stop a local nonprofit from purchasing the hospital building and, perhaps, adding a working kitchen and some temporary housing for the homeless. But it’s not far.
“FUTURE HOMELESS CAMPGROUND,” with an arrow pointing to the hospital, go the banners Stevenson’s affixed to a Grove ManLift aerial work platform in a parking lot he owns across the street from the hospital building. The signs even list potential developer Hsing Liu’s personal cell phone number, encouraging people to give him a call. Turning it into a campground is, of course, not anywhere to be found in Liu’s proposal. Still, Stevenson insists that it’s inevitable.
Campaign of one?
When Stevenson started to hear rumors last week that someone was negotiating the purchase of the building from its current owner, PSI, he checked it out at Metro Codes. Liu, of Antioch, is a board member of a number of area nonprofits, including American Idol cast member Danny Gokey’s Sophia’s Heart Foundation, the organization behind the Antioch Relief Center, which provided temporary housing to displaced flood victims this year.
Liu, on behalf of Sophia’s Heart, had inquired with Metro Codes about the building’s zoning, asking if it could be used for a number of purposes, not merely the homeless housing Stevenson is so focused on. In a memo, Liu — who did not respond to several interview requests — sent to codes, he wrote that he represents a nonprofit organization (Sophia’s Heart) “that is considering plans to do two things: continue providing certain services [provided by the Mental Health Cooperative] and to expand those services.”
Judging by the memo, the shelter is only a very small part of a much larger charitable project.
Liu’s memo goes on to bullet-point the additional services, including overnight housing and food preparation for a small group (10-20) of overnight homeless guests, meal preparation for up to 200 (dining off premises), a space to receive food and clothing donations, a community center for children’s activities, and classrooms for computer and life-skills training.
Stevenson found out that existing zoning did allow for such a project, and if purchased, it would likely go through if he didn’t do what every property owner who’s ever found himself NIMBY-ed up against a proposed homeless shelter. He started a website (www.saveoureastneighborhood.com) and began circulating a petition. He also put up the banners across the street.
“It’s going to destroy our entire neighborhood. I have a parking lot over there [across Eastland Avenue from the hospital], and occasionally I’ll have a homeless person out there that I’ll have to run out, but it’s going to turn into a homeless campground,” he said in a phone interview. “They’re going to be wandering around everywhere, all up in our city streets that we’ve worked hard to clean up.”
Later, during an interview on the balcony at Steve’s, which overlooks the roof of the hospital, Stevenson expanded on his concerns.
“Am I going to have to have an armed guard over there?” he said. When asked if characterizing the proposal as a future “campground” so early on, well before the scale of the project, which isn’t even a project yet, was fair, or merely a scare tactic, he said that it would be inevitable. “What do you call it when someone is sleeping under your carport? … They’re proposing this, but what’s actually going to happen is it’s going to be a campground.”
Stevenson said that nearly every business owner and nearby resident he’s talked to has told him that any such project would be sure to scare away business. He didn’t say whom specifically.
“I think [Stevenson’s campaign] is fine. I think it’s fine because we’re trying to build this whole Five Points area up,” said Jeremy Taylor, owner of Mohawk Salon in the American Professional Building. “You don’t want to see the same thing that’s been happening for years, that’s been keeping it down.”
Others, however, were more open to the proposal, including John Lozier, executive director of the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, which is, appropriately enough in the context of this story, on the first floor of Stevenson’s building.
“You realize you’re pitting me with my landlord,” Lozier said. “There are already very important services provided next door, critical services. And the need for housing and services for people who are poor is critical in our community. I believe that a well-operated program of services for poor and dispossessed people is not incompatible with the values of this community where I live and work.”
Ryan Rado, owner of Humankind Thrift Store, said he would be in favor of the project. His store, he noted, donates 15 percent of its profits to low-income public-school students who can’t afford required school attire. At the same time, he was careful to say that he’s sympathetic to his landlord’s concerns.
“I understand Mr. Stevenson’s point. It may create more transients around here. From his perspective, what I would think, would be that he wants to create — god, it’s a touchy subject,” Rado said. “I would be into [the proposed project] if it were well-regulated … I’m just saying there should be accountability on all sides, from the employees to the administration to growing these folks in their mental capacity and trying to rehabilitate them.”
Mackenzi Johnson, a receptionist at East Nashville Community Acupuncture in the American Professional Building, said she’d favor a well-run organization in the neighborhood.
“I would rather have a homeless shelter than homeless people with nowhere to go,” she said, adding that she was not speaking on behalf of her employer but as someone who, as an employee working next door and a longtime resident of the neighborhood, spends a lot of time around the hospital. “A shelter provides some kind of organization, and it keeps people in check. If it’s going to be run right, they’re going to have to check in regularly. Is it really so bad to advocate for people to have a bit more security in their life, even if it’s only for a couple of hours a day?”
Bizarre allegations of fraud
It’s not only the fear of attracting homeless people that Stevenson said he objects to.
“This isn’t about helping the homeless; this is about milking Medicare and Medicaid and the homeless people,” he said.
Lozier said that, in his experience, it’s fairly rare that such scams — in which homeless people are lured into hospitals or clinics, not treated, treated insufficiently or had their treatment paid for through their own private insurance, and Medicare or Medicaid is still billed — are actually quite rare.
“There have been one or two scams [of this variety] involving Medicaid or Medicare, that I’ve been aware of nationally, over the last 25 years that I’ve been involved in this work. One or two fairly significant scams,” he said.
Throughout the course of several interviews, Stevenson frequently used language like “Medicare scam,” “sweetheart deal for the charity,” and referred to Liu’s charity (“a front”) “using the homeless” to “funnel Medicare money,” advising that one should “just follow the money” in his characterization and condemnation of the proposal.
When asked if he had any evidence that Liu, Sophia’s Heart, the Mental Health Cooperative or any other involved party actually intended to commit any type of fraud or financial impropriety, though, he balked. Asked if he simply believes they might, he said no. The “sweetheart deal” appears to be simply that the shelter and associated medical facility might be legally reimbursed by the government for services they actually intend to provide.
It remained unclear just how, in Stevenson’s mind, anyone save the people served by the proposed facility would realize any material benefit whatsoever.