Miracle on ice

Sunday, February 7, 2010 at 11:45pm

It’s getting cold out as the sun settles in behind the Nashville skyline. Real cold. Rainy still. The final remnants of the winter storm that knocked the city off its post in the last weekend of January melt slowly toward the sewer grates, leaving behind tracks of dirt and stain that’ll remain until the next big rain comes, maybe longer.

A group of men has convened at the back end of the Nashville Rescue Mission’s parking lot, smoking cigarettes and laughing like hyenas. They’re one of three or four little colonies of smokers dotting the parapets of the city’s largest shelter like satellite cities ready to be annexed.

They came here in record numbers during the winter storm that dropped 4 inches of snow on Nashville — the most since 2003 — and capping the city’s longest cold streak since 1942. The city’s shelters, aid agencies and government convened to do what seemed unlikely at best: They got nearly every homeless person off the snowy streets and indoors from Friday through Sunday.

In total, almost 90 percent of the estimated 4,000 or so homeless in Nashville were out of the cold during one of the most brutal weekends on record here, although officials acknowledge some of those were duplicates — the same people visiting night after night. (Read about the recently released homelessness count.)

Daily ritual

The line stretches about five people deep from the metal detector, the first step to getting a place to sleep and a few warm meals if you’re homeless. Empty your pockets. Better not have anything even resembling a weapon. No drugs. Pass through the second doorway, through more strips of heavy plastic sheeting that fall onto your shoulders like the soft cleansing fingers of a car wash.

Now you’re in the courtyard, among 50 or so men in various stages of mental health, taking cigarette or fresh (as it can get) air breaks. Pass by a modest collection of lockers, by about a hundred rucksacks and backpacks and duffel bags, by the single outside pay phone, and through double doors — the glass of one spidered by some prior act of violence — and you reach step two: another metal detector, another security guard, another emptying of the pockets, another round of the conversion ritual from homeless to housed.

Once you’re in, workers and volunteers — many of whom are coming off stints as clients — hand you pajamas and take your clothes for a wash. You can get a hot meal in the cafeteria, which is almost always full. If there’s not a bed for you among the 918 or so in the Rescue Mission that are used daily, you’ll move to a room with five long rows of padded chairs, a dirtier version of an airport terminal.

As long as the temperature outside is above 36 degrees, the doors lock at 6:30 p.m. and you’re in until the morning. When the cold comes, though, the doors stay open around the clock.

It’s a daily ritual for many Nashvillians who otherwise might have none: some are jobless, some work part time, and many — advocates say — benefit greatly from the basic structure afforded by a place like this.

Mission spokesman Cliff Tredway said use of the private, religious-based agency’s services has been up 14 percent over the last month, a trend that coincides with the extreme cold. The facility exceeded capacity for more than two weeks straight in January.

“We didn’t expect snow to come in like it did,” Tredway said. “Two weeks prior, three weeks prior, they said the big snowfall was coming and it didn’t show up, although cold, wet weather is a killer without snow. For us it’s all hands on deck, and it’s just crazy busy around here.”

But it wasn’t just people knocking on the mission’s doors to find relief from the cold. Under the guidance of the city’s Office of Emergency Management, and on the order of Mayor Karl Dean, the Metro Homelessness Commission and other private and nonprofit groups banded together, searching the city’s streets and camps, bringing in most every person they could find.

According to the homelessness commission, 3,534 people were provided meals, blankets, and sometimes beds over the last weekend in January, all in a city where support services are often overrun by need this time of year.

“It worked so beautifully by the time this snowstorm hit, it was kind of like a fine-tuned group that said, ‘It’s time to do it again,’ ” said Clifton Harris, director of the commission.

Rachel Hester, executive director of Room in the Inn, said the faith-based agency served a total of 315 people Friday night and 316 Saturday. The agency houses 70 people on site and coordinates with local churches to accommodate others.

But with the snow piling up on the roads, Hester said moving those in need to congregations across the city was difficult. “The sheriff’s office probably took 10 congregations between the two nights,” she said.

“Everyone was aware that canceling was not the best option,” she added.

The 55-year old mission, housed in a sprawling building formerly occupied by Sears on Lafayette Street, is by far the city’s biggest shelter, housing more than 90 percent of the homeless population. Room in the Inn and other church-based services fill some gaps.

Then there is the jail.

The law won

Of course, the mission is not exactly the St. Regis Hotel. In its shadow is a long history of serving the city’s most abandoned and least desirable tenants, some one-third of whom are plagued by mental illness. Some deride it as the “house of pain.”

“The least desired shelter is the Nashville Rescue Mission,” Kevin Barbieux, author of the popular blog The Homeless Guy, wrote in an email to The City Paper. “Yet because it has the most capacity, and because so many people [would] rather swallow their pride and forgo dignity than risk the dangers and lack of comfort of the streets, they stay at the mission anyway.”

A person close to homelessness issues who spoke on the condition of anonymity explained that the shelter is in a Catch-22 because it is providing services for those in the absolute worst circumstances. In other words, the mission is there to rehabilitate people while at the same time dealing with some of the city’s toughest people — who have to be treated with concomitant toughness.

According to Metro police records, officers were summoned to the mission 108 times between January 2009 and last month. All but three of those were for either a disorderly person or a fight/assault. The same is true for Room in the Inn, although there were only 30 instances of police involvement there over the same period.

Balancing the mission’s difficult reputation are its services for women and children. On any given night you’ll find from 19 to 32 children at the mission. The agency reached its high on the last weekend in January, when 37 kids settled into a warm night. The agency is nearing the final stages of a $5.4 million expansion that will house, feed and serve only women and children, once again bringing them to a separate facility from the men. For the last six months, the two groups have shared the mission’s main building, although they are kept separate.