Five years after Nashville adopted a 10-year plan to eliminate chronic homelessness in the city, the number of homeless has doubled and the city has fallen woefully short of its ambitious goals to create housing, offer services and improve the lives of the homeless.
In 2005, the then-new Metro Homelessness Commission released an ambitious Strategic Plan to End Chronic Homelessness in Nashville: 2005-2015. “Nashville currently has an inventory of 807 permanent housing opportunities that are targeted for homeless individuals,” the report said. “Fifty-six units are under development.”
The 2005 report estimated that Nashville needed 486 units each of new construction and renovated housing along with 972 rental assistance/subsidies — or a total of 1,944 units — at an estimated cost of nearly $40 million, and that was just for the chronically homeless.
After five years, the commission has 252 units of housing for homeless individuals, none of them new construction.
“Some might think that’s great, but [1,900] was the goal,” said Howard Gentry, former vice mayor and the original director of the homelessness commission. “As a community, as far as awareness, education and collaborative efforts, we’re light years from where we were five years ago. Unfortunately, in terms of housing, we’re way behind our goal.”
Support services are stretched thin, and a shortage of case managers is so crippling that only 400 homeless people have been housed, while more than 4,000 are now on Nashville’s streets every night. In 2005, the number of homeless in Nashville usually averaged about 2,000, Gentry said.
Clifton Harris, director of the homelessness commission, acknowledges that the homeless population has grown in the last half-decade, though he quibbles with the figures Gentry cites. He points out that the current count has been expanded to include more kinds of people — not just the chronically homeless but also the unemployed guy whose girlfriend kicks him out, battered women and their children who find their way to shelters, kids kicked out of their homes by angry parents, and runaways.
The good news is that some of the plan’s goals have been achieved, such as creation of a Homeless Management Information System. Health services are being provided via a long-term contract with Eckman/Freeman, whose officials told the commission in May that it had served 57 people over the past three years at an average cost of $12,000 per person, had housed 40 of those participants, and estimated a cost savings of $96 per person per night off the street. The commission also has helped 169 individuals in the past 18 months obtain the Supplemental Security Income and Social Security Disability Income to which they were entitled, Harris said.
However the homeless are counted, Nashville’s 10-year plan was based on a Housing First model, which assumes that getting the chronic homeless into permanent housing with wrap-around supportive services is the most basic step toward stabilizing the entire homeless problem.
Nashville’s existing 252 units are scattered around town, at Mercury Courts out Murfreesboro Road, at Park Court and Fisk Court in north Nashville, and in 50 or 60 apartments around town that landlords for one reason or another have been unable to rent, said Erik Cole, who aside from being chairman of the homelessness commission is also a Metro Council member and executive director of the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services, a statewide network of low-income civil legal service providers.
Getting a homeless person into one of these units is a labyrinthine process of coordinating a homeless client, a landlord, a not-for-profit or public entity that has agreed to pay the rent, and the agency that makes the actual payment to the landlord, such as the Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency, which is responsible for the Section 8 housing program. The process takes as long as a year and would challenge a Ph.D., much less a person whose limited coping skills have led them to life on the street.
Kevin Barbieux, who writes the popular blog The Homeless Guy, tells The City Paper he was on a waiting list for an apartment for a year before waiting out another four-month application process to move in. And as the homeless representative on the original task force in 2004, his understanding of bureaucratic morass is better than most.
“Yeah, being in this Housing First situation has made a big difference in my life,” Barbieux said in an e-mail. “But that’s not to say that I no longer have issues related to my homelessness. Life is still an enormous struggle for me.”
As soon as the tentacles of this administrative octopus are tied up and one homeless client has been placed in an apartment, 4,000 more are on the streets — cold, tired and hungry, some of them children, some pregnant women, some close to death.
“That nightmare … is very real,” Cole said.
So why hasn’t Nashville made more headway solving what is an admittedly intractable problem?
“Money,” Gentry said. “We cannot expect the city, the government, to fund this.”
In the past five years, the homelessness commission has struggled along on an annual budget of about $1 million, about half provided by Metro along with grants from federal agencies such as Housing and Urban Development, Cole said. As recommended in the original plan, the commission conducted two pilot projects — one on the efficacy of Housing First and the other on fast-tracking efforts to get homeless individuals their government assistance, such as SSI/SSDI.
The commission estimated in 2005 that it would take $72 million in public and private funds to obtain or construct low-income housing units and provide the essential support programs to end chronic homelessness in Nashville by 2015 — $40 million for housing chronically homeless and another $32.5 million for housing opportunities for the non-chronic homeless population. The plan was silent on goals for raising that money.
But the strategic plan called for the commission, in its second year, to establish a “development committee through the Homeless Commission to attract program-related investments for housing.”
But Gentry says that while the commission hasn’t yet raised any of that money, it finally feels it has the community support, institutional experience and infrastructure in place to do so.
Following successful models in Atlanta and Denver, Nashville in August launched The Key Alliance to raise that $72 million to either build or more likely renovate 2,000 housing units in the next five years. The goal is for about $35 million to come from private donors and $36.7 million from federal, state and government sources.
The private-sector leaders who participate are termed Community Champions. Among those already on board are some of the Nashville business community’s heaviest hitters, such as PR executive Sue Atkinson and producer Kitty Moon Emery, Gentry said. Another of the “champions” is attorney James Weaver of Waller Lansden Dortch & Davis, who represents some of Nashville’s big-dog developers.
At the commission’s July 10 meeting, attendee Lindsey Krinks admonished the commission for its appeal to the city’s business community.
“It’s great to have community champions, but at same time that’s a charity act rather than justice,” she said. “Over the last four and half years, Nashville has built well over 2,000 units of luxury housing. We have built less than 100 units for low-income people.”
Nevertheless, the pitch to these high rollers is not simple justice but simple business economics. Nashville’s economic development plans rely on downtown tourism, a new convention center and hotels, LP Field, the Sommet Center and “urban pioneers” in trendy lofts.
“A big population of homeless people in downtown Nashville is going to impact the tourist experience,” Cole said. “It’s not easy; it’s really messy,” he said, but for Nashville’s long-term growth strategy, “we have to humanely and conscientiously deal with this problem.”
Jay Mazon, executive director of the homeless advocacy group Nashville Homeless Power Project, agrees that community awareness is vital to any effort to reduce or eliminate homelessness.
“Some of these myths and stereotypes need to be dispelled,” she said, citing how “nasty, so mean” downtown business owners had been to her clients before her office moved from the Arcade to 1310 Jefferson St.
“Whether the business community wants to admit it or accept it or not, homeless people are part of the community,” she said. “If they’re bad for business, then it’s good business to help.”
The commission estimates the cost of managing homelessness — through emergency shelters, food banks, police, social services and indigent health care — at $35,000 per homeless person per year. On the other hand, subsidized housing with support services for each homeless person costs about $17,000 per year. The commission brandishes this $72 million in annual avoided cost like a torch, hoping to convince taxpayers and private donors of the worthiness of the commission’s efforts, since appeals to goodwill have proved inadequate.
On Dec. 9, when the commission held its second annual Project Homeless Connect day, more than 1,500 homeless Nashvillians poured into Municipal Auditorium for a day of free services, such as haircuts and foot washing. Weather-beaten men cruised the echoing concrete space clutching brightly colored boxes blazoned with Nike swooshes. Others sat with some of the 700 volunteers at computers to sign up for food stamps, get help finding their birth certificates or Social Security numbers, obtain bus cards, or access services for veterans or the aging. They were men, women, children, black, white, old, young.
There was even a pet care section, with bags of kibble, treats and toys and bright yellow leashes for cats and dogs. Two black-and-white puppies named Bonnie and Clyde gnawed on each other while waiting in a big crate for their person to return.
Walter Kelley, a native Nashvillian, got a copy of his birth certificate, a résumé and a list of appointments for possible jobs. “But you know what,” he said three days later. “I lost them.”
Still, he wasn’t in despair. He’s hoping “to mingle around and run into somebody who’ll give me a chance to see what I can do.”
Meanwhile, “I am living outside,” he said. “The world is my home.”
At the event, Harris rattled off a slew of statistics to prove the efficacy of housing: a 92 percent retention rate, reduced jail time, reduced hospital visits, better health care, less time on the streets.
Harris said he believes that if homeless advocates can keep the problem in the public’s awareness, “the resources will come.”
“Five years ago, we had a plan, but we didn’t have a method of implementation,” Harris said. “Now we have goals, methods, staff. We’ve put our feet to the fire and we’re ready to move.”
But in the meantime, “people died on the street,” Gentry said that day. “People should not have to die on the street. Women are being beaten. Children should not have to live on the street.” Gentry estimates that 400 people have died homeless in the past nine years.
Indeed, as Project Homeless Connect ended, a cold snap locked down over Nashville. That night, Kevin Goins, 44, wrapped in his blankets near the homeless tent city along the Cumberland River, rolled into his fire and burned to death, the 25th homeless fatality of the year.
“What will it take for us finally as a city to decide that this must stop, this dying must stop?” Charles Strobel, founding director of the Room in the Inn shelter, said Dec. 12 at a memorial for the homeless who died in 2009.The homelessness commission uses a “vulnerability index” to assign housing, basically plucking off the streets those “most at risk of dying if they are not placed in supportive housing,” Cole said.
The index, created by the Boston advocacy group Common Ground, gives housing priority to those who have been homeless for at least six months and have one or more health markers related to age and other diseases. Because it gives priority to people who could be near death without housing, it actually puts homeless men above homeless children.
The city has accepted the inevitability of the tent city, which it has been trying to raze for years, bowing to the reality that, as bad as its conditions are, it provides a central point of contact for getting services to the homeless. If it were razed, another would spring up in its place. And getting someone into housing doesn’t necessarily mean he or she will stay there.
Even the commission is not without its own internal problems. Just last month, Harris was reprimanded and placed on a 90-day probation for questions about a no-bid $72,000 contract for computer security services.
Meanwhile, as the commission continues to meet, the advocates continue to plead, and business leaders are tapped to raise money, the homeless are still suffering and dying.
As Strobel puts it, “The crisis of homelessness is the crisis of death.”