One man's uphill climb out of Tent City

Monday, July 5, 2010 at 11:45pm
Anne Marshall

It’s early afternoon at the temporary, post-flood Tent City, settled on a steep and grassy hill off Interstate 24 in Antioch. Shielded by dense woods, an aspiring singer harmonizes with country radio. Nearby a disabled veteran who goes by the name “Pops” is pitching a new tent. One camp over, it’s lunchtime.

David Kowalski collapses his wiry 6-foot-4 frame like an accordion as he kneels over his makeshift fire pit: four upside-down soup cans spread a couple inches apart with sticks, with leaves and ash piled in the center. Kowalski sets a grate on top of the four cans and ignites the fire with a candle. He rips open three packages of Ramen noodles, breaks off a corner of pepperjack cheese that hasn’t been refrigerated since he bought it the night before. His eyes roll up as he chews methodically, searching for a sour or bitter taste.

“Still good.” He smiles and breaks off half the block, dumping it in his noodles.

At 55, Kowalksi doesn’t mind the camping part one bit. He’s always been an avid outdoorsman, but he’s getting older. The walking, the uncomfortable sleep, the stress — these things add up. “I’m getting tired,” he sighs.

Work and family are the stabilization he craves, but he can’t seem to hold onto them. A lot of down luck, plenty of bad decisions and fractured relationships were his stepping-stones to homelessness. He’s always loved working and can spend hours rattling off stories of his 100-hour work weeks, a favorite boss who nicknamed him “Slim” and his impossibly long nights behind the wheel of a semi truck.

Since coming to Nashville 13 years ago, Kowalski has been homeless a handful of times, but the last year and a half has been the hardest. Construction jobs are few, and there’s a glut of people willing to do what little work there is for far less than what Kowalski believes he’s worth.

His days of living in a tent may soon end. For the first time in years, he has the opportunity to sign his name on a lease. That is, if he can find a way to navigate the bureaucratic maze that stands between the homeless and the housing many of them seek.

Metro Nashville is scheduled to close Tent City July 5, and some residents are awaiting public housing or trying to hunt down Section 8 apartments. But while city agencies focus their efforts on those options, advocates are pushing for a permanent transitional housing facility — a full-time Tent City, perhaps — that would keep the homeless plugged into the agencies and, the thinking goes, off the streets.

A lengthy process

After May’s flood, most of Tent City’s 140 residents ended up at an emergency shelter at Lipscomb University. During their roughly weeklong stay, two city agencies — the Metro Homelessness Commission and the Metro Development and Housing Agency — made available dozens of Section 8 housing vouchers for them and other flood victims. Those vouchers are agreements that the federal government will foot most of the rent bill for a year. The average assistance on a one-bedroom unit is close to $400.

The sudden availability of vouchers was a big deal. The Section 8 waiting list in Nashville is 1,400 deep, and new applications haven’t been taken since the fall of 2008. The homelessness commission’s top priority has always been to get the homeless into permanent housing, and officials there aim to have close to 2,000 units available by 2015. Halfway into that initiative, however, they’ve secured 350. While the Section 8 vouchers don’t create new apartments, they do get folks into existing ones.

The flood emergency allowed victims like Kowalski to leapfrog the usual wait. Sixty-six people applied, and close to 30 have been approved. Kowalski has been told his voucher is pending a birth certificate he’s been trying for weeks to get from his home state of Indiana. The state denied his initial attempt because of his expired license.

But having a voucher in hand offers few guarantees. Individuals must seek landlords who accept Section 8. Landlords can turn away those whose background checks make them wary. When that part is complete, the next step is a federal housing inspection. The whole ordeal requires initiative, time and transportation.

Getting into town from the new encampment in Antioch is a process: It takes about a half-hour to walk to the bus stop, and then it’s a 45- to 60-minute ride downtown. Kowalski doesn’t have a bus pass to get into town or money for his first order of business, the license renewal fee. But that license is crucial. He needs it to reapply for the birth certificate that will lead him to the voucher, which could result in an apartment.

Kowalski knows that even once his license is taken care of, it could take up to a month for his certificate to arrive. Even after all that’s complete, he’ll need a temporary place to stay. Pat Clark, MDHA’s director of rental assistance, said it can take two to four weeks — best-case scenario — to go from voucher to house keys in hand.

An outreach worker tells Kowalski that a church downtown will cover the cost of getting a new license, and someone procures a one-day bus pass for him. His case manager could help him with all this, but Kowalski admits he’s not been good at keeping in touch with her. A desire to be independent is partly to blame, he says. No electricity at camp to charge his phone and a limited number of minutes also don’t help. So he’ll head out in the next few days and try to get that license.

On this afternoon, though, Kowalski is more concerned with the time left on a cooler full of meat and eggs that hasn’t enjoyed ice for days. He’ll probably have to throw it away. He pokes at his noodles with a fork, and the four soup cans tremble. Boiling water and noodles threaten to spill. Ants scurry. A daddy long legs spider halts its lazy commute, seeming to take in the spectacle.

High water

Kowalski remembers the water creeping up his front porch of wood pallets and into his single shed that, with its twin bed, he says was cozy, a little “like a child’s bedroom.” That Sunday morning, Doug Sanders, a minister with Brentwood’s Otter Creek Church of Christ who has worked with Tent City residents for about two years, arrived with buses. He and other volunteers, including Jeannie Alexander of Amos House Community, drove most residents to the emergency Red Cross shelter at Lipscomb.

When that shelter closed, Alexander, Sanders and the Metro Homelessness Commission secured hotel vouchers and space in local churches for a few weeks. But it soon became clear that roughly 50 Tent City residents were about to find themselves with expired hotel vouchers and churches that could no longer house them. Some had received rental assistance checks from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but they didn’t want to spend all the money on motels. Sanders and Alexander worried that if this group were released to the streets, a flurry of trespassing arrests was sure to follow.

Returning to the old Tent City wasn’t an option. The land was caked with diesel fuel and feces from overturned portable toilets. Sanders and Alexander thought sending Tent City residents back fell somewhere between hazardous and inhumane. The two tried convincing city officials to help find a temporary spot for residents until a long-term solution presented itself.

On May 7, they brought a resolution to the homelessness commission that requested Metro government find a piece of land that could house this population, and waive any codes and restrictions that might be in place. There weren’t enough members at that meeting to vote.

Sanders believed he had to act quickly. He made calls to friends. Lee Beaman, a prominent Nashville businessman and Otter Creek Church member, was one of them. Beaman offered a section his 124-acre lot in Antioch.

Tents were pitched as the sun set on Tuesday, May 25. Sam Coleman, that area’s Metro councilman, along with neighbors and homelessness commission members, were notified after the fact. Many Antioch residents were outraged that the community wasn’t involved in the transfer of homeless men and women, a group that includes felons and a sex offender, to their district at a time when Antioch is working to clean up its image.

But within days, Metro’s codes department deemed the camp illegal. Beaman’s plot is zoned for commercial use. An encampment like Tent City not only needs to be on agricultural land, but it also requires a variance, or special permission to exist. That’s not happening.

Housing First

Soon after it formed in 2005, the Metro Homelessness Commission adopted a national best-practice model known as Housing First. The program uses housing as a motivator, moving people from the street straight into housing and saturating them with intense case management services.

This reverses the old way of doing things. For a long time, a homeless person would need to complete drug and alcohol treatment or job training before having a shot at housing. Jumping through all those hoops can be difficult and overwhelming.

“We know that housing plus the case management services keeps people housed and reduces the number of people on the street,” Clifton Harris, director of the homelessness commission, said. “It reduces jail time, it reduces hospital visits, it reduces time going to feeding programs. The whole nine yards.”

Housing First case managers typically have only 10 or 12 clients, which allows for almost-daily monitoring of a client’s needs. It’s a model that 50 formerly homeless people have been a part of in Nashville. Harris said the 92 percent housing retention rate proves it’s effective.

But Housing First can cost $9,000 to $17,000 a year per person, and the commission does not have that kind of money: While it has a fundraising goal of $20 million over the next five years for this initiative, so far the coffers boast only about $26,000.

During the first week of June, Harris and several case managers with Metro Social Services drove out to Tent City and compiled a roster of those with housing vouchers. Anybody without a case manager was assigned one of the five in Metro Social Services’ homelessness division.

Jeannie Alexander welcomed the visit and helped guide Harris and his team to campsites strewn along the wooded hillside. She applauds housing for the homeless. Still, she doesn’t consider a couple dozen Section 8 vouchers a panacea.

“I’m not going to jump on this bandwagon of people who are pretending like, ‘OK, it’s all better, we got some vouchers. We don’t need a permanent transitional encampment anymore’ — because it’s not true,” she said.

Alexander said finding housing for Tent City residents with criminal backgrounds would be difficult. Also, she knows how long the process of getting into a Section 8 apartment can be. Interviews, inspections and locating available units can suck up weeks. Vouchers are only good for 60 days.

She said a transitional site where case managers and outreach workers can keep tabs on the homeless would help. Alexander is concerned that on July 5, a couple dozen residents will have nowhere to go, and discussions for some kind of Tent City reincarnation have gone silent.

Many from the camp either are not allowed into the Nashville Rescue Mission — the city’s only full-scale relief center — or simply don’t like the crowds. Alexander doesn’t think it’s realistic to assume all will choose the shelter over the streets.

“The flood came and made Tent City disappear,” she said. “And unfortunately there was the thought, some people had the thought, ‘Great, it’s over, it’s gone.’ But it’s not. The flood didn’t wash people away.”

Sanders and Alexander are searching for a new encampment. One idea on the table prior to the flood was to relocate Tent City and upgrade it to a more formal transitional housing setup. It was clear from the onset this would not be a Metro-funded project. In a February 2010 public meeting, Erik Cole, commission chair and a Metro councilman, said outside agencies would be responsible for that. Still, the commission proceeded.

Sanders researched other successful transitional encampments in cities like Portland, Ore., and Austin, Texas. He said the new place was going to be different from the old Tent City, often perceived as a drunken, lawless site.

“We’d like something with more dignity,” he said, a place with more rules, a council and possibly even one-room sheds rather than tents. Residents would have to work toward getting into apartments or homes. Sanders even thought volunteerism should be required.

Harris, director of the commission, was in charge of selecting feasible relocation sites in Davidson County. On May 7, he reported that more than half of the six sites that had tentatively been chosen for relocation were underwater and no longer viable. He added, “We’re still looking for sites, kind of on a daily basis.”

Harris did inform those gathered for a meeting, though, that getting an encampment on Metro property wouldn’t come quickly or easily. The planning and zoning department and the Metro Council would also need to offer their blessings.

In the weeks following that May 7 meeting, any discussion of a permanent Tent City has been replaced with an ardent push for housing.

“That’s what we’re trying to stay focused on and not get distracted by other initiatives that may be going on simultaneously that we have no control over,” Harris said. He stressed that long-term, supportive housing has always been the No. 1 priority of the commission.

Is it working?

Metro’s housing agency has received confirmation that four of the Section 8 vouchers are being put to use, but both Harris and Alexander say more have secured housing.

On a recent muggy Tuesday morning, Alexander drives two Tent City residents — “Vegas” and “TeeTee” — to look at a renovated unit with a landlord open to Section 8. Sitting in the back of Alexander’s Jeep, Vegas puts his arm around TeeTee. They’re nervous. For a couple years now, Vegas and TeeTee have been the protective parents to an ever-changing transient brood. A new arrival’s first stop was always their camp for Tent City 101. Vegas listed the rules. TeeTee often helped get a tent, blankets, or whatever else was needed.

Alexander pulls up to the two-story brick building bordered by electrical and plumbing supply stores. Within minutes of seeing the freshly painted walls, new tile floors and bathtub, both are sold. “Not bad,” mutters TeeTee. “We’ll take it,” Vegas echoes.

Vegas promises to buy TeeTee a stepping stool for the kitchen cabinets she can’t reach, and like professional house-flippers, they discuss the value of replacing the fluorescent lights with track lighting.

Vegas and TeeTee, who met at Tent City, are getting married at the end of July. The new place will add to the tranquility. Vegas, who writes music with his brother, wants to dive into the industry here. The shower, electricity and address should help. TeeTee still wants to assist at Tent City, but she also says she’s “blessed” to finally be getting out. It took a long time and a natural disaster, but her end date is almost here.

Meanwhile, David Kowalski’s wait continues. With three weeks until the Antioch camp closes, he decides to use the bus pass, get his license renewed, and reapply for his birth certificate. Then he can secure a voucher.

Kowalski heads out of camp and starts the 30-minute walk up Bell Road toward Hickory Hollow Mall, where he’ll catch the No. 15 bus. Like almost everyone else at the camp, he doesn’t like being so far away from downtown, where necessities like showers, meals and computers are in supply.

As he sits waiting for the bus, Kowalski looks out at the mall. “I used to spend money at that mall,” he says, recalling the days when he could open his wallet and have the cash for a vest or gloves from Wilson’s Leather. The independence of his past makes relying on the mercy of others all the more painful.

The 45-minute bus ride downtown wears on Kowalski’s patience. The bus comes to a stop at the site of the new Music City Convention Center, where towering cranes assist daily growth spurts of concrete and metal. He leans toward the window and points: “That dozer I could operate. See that truck down on the bottom? That’s an articulated dump truck. I could operate that,” he says with pride. Kowalski talked to someone at the site about a job two months ago, but the man told him they weren’t hiring. “Maybe I talked to the wrong person,” he says as his voice trails off.

Kowalski makes his way to Downtown Presbyterian near the library to try to get the money for his license renewal. It’s 11:15 a.m., and the woman at the church office tells him they only cut checks until 11:30. She says he must first head to Seventh and Charlotte to fill out the necessary application. His 15-minute window would close before the walk and paperwork can be completed, meaning the check will have to wait another day.

“I didn’t know that,” Kowalski sighs, his shoulders falling forward. His bus pass is only good for one day, so if he heads back to camp, he won’t be able to make it downtown tomorrow. He decides to stay in town for the night. There’s an air-conditioned church he knows will let him in.

The next morning, Kowalski heads to the Driver Services Center with the $37 for license renewal tucked into his leather wallet. As he sits in front of the blue silk backdrop for his picture, he takes off his cap and smiles broadly. He asks for a second picture just to make sure there’s a good one. He leaves the office giddy, confident the new ID will help him get work.

With a few days left before the Antioch camp closes, Kowalski’s certificate hasn’t arrived, and Tent City residents are heading to churches and motels — temporarily. Sanders and Alexander hope upcoming talks with the homelessness commission will result in a more permanent solution.

Kowalski may stick with the pack, but he has a plan B. If the church shelter is too cramped and his housing remains in limbo, he’ll pack up and start walking.

He may head out of town or spend his days looking for work in Nashville. Once the sky dims, he’ll slip into a pocket of empty land big enough for him and his tent and settle in. Come morning, he’ll open his eyes to the blue fabric walls he’d like to tear down for the last time.

11 Comments on this post:

By: budlight on 7/6/10 at 7:31

There are very few people who "make what they think they are worth" but we still have to hold down a job.

By: t.t. on 7/6/10 at 3:55

Oh, budlight... it's so much more than that for this gentleman. You can't fix the problems of homelessness or homeless people by giving them a crappy minimum wage job. It's way more complex than you can imagine, obviously.

By: AmyLiorate on 7/7/10 at 8:04

That's a very important part of the sentence:
"...people willing to do what little work there is for far less than what Kowalski believes he’s worth."

So he is homeless by choice. At least partly so it seems.

T.T. It doesn't take imagination to see that you are living in a tent and have no money. It takes initiative, oh wait, that was covered too!

"His case manager could help him with all this, but Kowalski admits he’s not been good at keeping in touch with her."

Now bud and I are not kicking a man while he's down. The point is that we pay for all these programs to help people and then some story like this is supposed to make us feel that he is a victim. The keys to his jail are in his own hands!

You can have Gucci tastes but a Wranglers budget. Don't pass up work just because you can only buy cheap jeans.

By: localboy on 7/7/10 at 8:27

"You can have Gucci tastes but a Wranglers budget. Don't pass up work just because you can only buy cheap jeans."
I always used a car analogy and said Cadillac and Chevy, but maybe that's because I can't spell Goo-Chee.
Good post.

By: dargent7 on 7/7/10 at 8:57

One thing that strikes me about this Kowalski fellow is that he looks healthy.
Healthy enough to get a job, maybe part time washing dishes, cleaning apts., running errands. Waiting around for "housing" and gov't handowts isn't "life".
One guy, the "Preacher" got $3,000. For what?

By: yucchhii on 7/7/10 at 9:32

Too many people just don't get it! You need to realize that there are soooo many reasons why people become homeless. There are rarely any reasons the same as another. Yes, SOME people make the choice willingly to be homeless. The majority do NOT! There are soooo many employers that play stupid little baby games that ultimately affect the paycheck and cause you to NOT have the money at the times when it's needed, such as paying RENT. There are a lot of people who are mentally challenged who cannot work, some of them get a check monthly and some do not because UNCLE SAM puts TOO many conditions on them. Then you have people who are physically challenged and cannot work. Just because someone "LOOKS" healthy doesn't mean they are! Before you judge a homeless person, get the facts. Also, TOO MANY people out there think they will never be homeless...I've got news for them. I have met several people who are homeless who admitted to me that THEY THEMSELVES had that arragant attitude...untill they had NO PLACE to live. The economy is getting worse and I don't care WHO the politicians are or whether they are democrat or republican, they are ALL FULL OF IT AND "WILL" BS YOU!!! The day I believe a politician is the day I will believe a supermarket tabloid...and THAT is NOT about to happen at ANY time.

By: AmyLiorate on 7/7/10 at 11:42

We don't get it? Yucchhii please don't use sarcasm on the internet, it never comes across the right way.

By: BigPapa on 7/8/10 at 7:03

I'm still wondering why these folks aren't hanging out over in the Otter Creek area. That preacher could put those tents over around Radnor Lake so the bums can have a nice view when they wake up and shrug off their daily hangover.

By: Dana wilson on 7/9/10 at 2:11

hello there,

Let me introduce myself..My name is dana and i used to live in tent city bout 3-4 years ago.
I know preacher and he is a guy i would not wanting to be standing behind when God pronounces judgement against him.For him to have 3,000 dollars goes against anything left to either getting a job and saving in the bank.I KNOW most of that money will go for dope and hookers.
Things in life are not forever.Tent City was for the most word of mouth in small numbers until people down there just let anybody with a few dollars get their dope.
When i lived there we had about 12-15 people and that was it.You had to be voted in.You had a probationary period until people got used to you.After a few people decided to be "rednecks" and run the camp we were not in the minds of cops or feeders.After a few incidents, tent city became very violent and unsecure.when we started seeing more and more cops things in my mind were telling me to get out by any means.I finally got out.
I told many people down where there were jobs but all they wanted to do was steal copper while it was good to get.When that had it's final run is when i started getting people seeing if i cold help them land a job where i work.not gonna happen.
I, for one am glad tent city is gone.These people need to understand they had it good down there and messed it up for personal gain.Nashviile doesn't need another one.
It is kinda hard to tell this but it has to be told.Many people I had known have either died or moved on.many people down there only wanted "hand outs" and that was preacher.I have no remose for what happened during the flood.Maybe some will see
the light and get off their duffs go find a job and re-enter society.
I did and am much better for it.I work a cool job and make damn good money.Tent City is a horrible nightmare I am still shaking off.may No one ever have to go thru what i had to endure.I guess i have character now.No ever said life was easy or what steps you will have to go thru to get to the other side,If all you ever want to is wait all day for a ham sandwich then that is all you should ever get, If you want to eat steak then i guess you will have to pay for it.
Tent City became its own enemy, and now that evil has been wiped away by some water.I thought it was gonna be ended by fire but i can dream.Whenever 2 or more homeless people convene no good came come out of it.When you have 40-60 homeless people in one place the cops are called,sometimes every day.

I hope the good people of Nashville reflect on what i have said and learn from it.


By: avoidbelmontuni... on 10/6/10 at 12:28

Dana, I can agree with some of your statements and understand the frustration. What I would like to see is the solution that was introduced to the Key Alliance back in October put in to place because it made all parties happy. However, if the homeless are housed, then some of these non-profits won't be able to line their pockets the way they've been doing. I'd like to see some MEASURABLE RESULTS from the Key Alliance, especially since the director, Clifton Harris makes over 101k per year. He was almost fired in November-check out the news articles on the internet. As far as Otter Creek goes, Doug Sanders blogs about everything he does; he's merely in it for the glory. He wants to be like Jesus, then he should help people and not get caught instead of broadcasting everything he does like he wants a Scooby snack. The situation could be a lot worse. There are thousands of homeless people who could be doing more damage if they became an angry mob. I, for one, like the idea of their being housed in transitional housing with rules within city limits so they have to follow city codes as well. People will see that folks are taking care of each other. The working homeless will be immediately housed, and can transition out into mainstream society and make room for the next one. Folks with mental health issues and other limitations can be dealt with by the remaining non-profits. Clifton Harris and his "Housing First" with "wraparound services" is a bullshit solution at a snail's pace to drag out the money. He needs to graduate from his ebonics course and stop saying things like "wif" and "bof". He makes enough money, he should know there is no "f" in "with" and "both". Dude, recognize. The public needs to demand measurable results or nothing will change. Peace.

By: oliverre on 7/7/11 at 7:22

I agree with alot of the comments and points that some of you have made. I can see where it makes people angry when they see someone who looks healthy, just sit around and wait for "hand outs". It makes me mad also. I was raised in a family that didn't have alot of money and I saw my dad work his fingers to the bones to make sure we had the necessaties and even somethings we just wanted. The point is, he WORKED and worked hard! He raised us many years pretty much by himself because our mom ran out on us. But he did what he had to do to take care of us. Then I look at my moms side of the family. I could count on one hand, the members of that side of my family that work for a living.The rest sit around and wait for government assitance or have the attitude of "what can you do for me". Now that im older I look back and am grateful that my dad is the one who raised me. He raised me with morals and the willingness to work for what I need. I was a single mother of two for many years. When my husband and I divorced, I left with nothing but the clothes on our backs. He kept everything else. I had to start over, with two small children (and no child support). But I did it. I worked two jobs. I found an apartment that I could afford. And I got myself back on my feet. And yes, I had to have government assistance during this time. But as soon as I was back on my feet. I REFUSED to take anymore "hand outs". I didn't use it as a means of income and refuse to better myself because I thought the government could just do it for me. I have a friend, (I use friend lightly) because its hard to really be close to someone you don't respect. But I go out and work every single day, sometimes double shifts. She hasn't worked a day in her life, has 2 small children. Her husband works the minimum to barely keep the bills paid. And she sits around and fusses because "they lowered her foodstamps". And then she comes to me when they don't have the money to get the kids what they need. The necessaties. But she will then turn around and put them in softball (which the kids dont seem to care about) or whatever other activity will make her look like June Cleaver to everyone else. And then goes home and can't feed them. Calls and whines to me about not having any money, but what makes her any better than me to get a job? I go to work everyday while she lays out in the sun or runs the roads.
The point I am trying to make... is that everyone is having a hard time right now with the economy the way it is. But you have to get up off your butts and make things happen. I hear on the radio all the time about the job fairs they are holding or that McDonalds is hiring. If i lost my job right now, I would do WHATEVER I had to do to make it. And that doesn't mean sit on my butt and wait and let everyone else do it for me. Now I am not downing ALL the homeless. Because in this day and age. We are ALL one paycheck away from homelessness ourselves. You never know what tomorrow could bring. Anything and any reason could put anyone of us in the same shoes as these people. But I buy a Contributor every month. From the same guy on the corner of Donelson Pike and Murf. Rd. He is out there rain or shine. No matter how cold is it or how hot. And he is trying to make a living. He is not sitting around a campfire waiting to see if someone is going to help him. HE IS HELPING HIMSELF! And every month I make sure that I give him a little more than what the paper costs, with the hopes that it will make his day a little easier. And I would rather give him my money that give it to my "friend" who sits on her butt everyday whining and complaining and not doing a thing about her situtation. So yes, there are homeless out there that don't need to be. That could do for themselves if they would. But refuse to because its easier to say "poor pitiful me". But then there are homeless that are doing everything in their power to not stay that way. Why can't David get in touch with the Contributor and sell those? Why is he sitting by a campfire in the early afternoon hours instead of pounding the pavement looking for work? And if he knew he needed to go get his license and that it is a long commute. Why did he wait til the afternoon to get started? Just to get there and them be ready to close. I can't get up when I feel like it. Take my own sweet time around the house and then go to work when I feel like it. I would lose my job. Maybe if he would show a little initative and stop procrastinating, he could get things done.