It is getting colder outside, and the nights are longer. More people are out on the street, and more people means more need, and more need means more help — things like food, clothing and basic government services — is needed.
Project Homeless Connect seeks to provide those things. While it is likely to attract record numbers of homeless Nashvillians in its third year, there is another side of the proverbial coin: Nashville is doing more for its homeless and poor populations now than ever before. Or so says Howard Gentry, former vice mayor and member of the Metropolitan Homelessness Commission.
“I saw Nashville go through a social revolution during the civil rights movement,” Gentry said. “We are going through that again as it relates to poverty and homelessness. Never in Nashville’s history has there been this much activity with regards to poverty and homelessness.”
A year ago, the project served just over 1,500 homeless people — about 500 more than the previous year. On hand to assist in the effort were 70 direct service providers and 700 volunteers. This year, attendees will have access to services including medical and foot care, legal services, employment assistance, pet care, food, toiletries, clothes and more.
Clifton Harris, director of the Key Alliance, said the goal is to recruit enough volunteers to directly match the growing number of homeless people.
“Every year we have more service providers sign up and more volunteers sign up,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is have enough volunteers that we can pair up a volunteer with each guest.”
Still, annual growth in an event for the homeless raises obvious questions. Primarily, is Nashville working toward defeating homelessness or simply trying to make it more tolerable? While the value of a morale boost for those on the streets should not be diminished, getting them off the street is the goal.
Harris said the Key Alliance is set on promoting permanent solutions and removing barriers to housing and employment. Toward that end, this year’s project will include a beefed up employment section and services that help people obtain proper identification.
“If you don’t have an ID, it’s a barrier,” Harris said. “To get a birth certificate you have to have an ID. To get housing you have to have an ID.”
When it comes to housing, the goal is to get the most vulnerable people off the street first. To make that distinction, the Key Alliance uses its Vulnerability Index.
Of 885 people surveyed over the last three years, roughly half (443 people) were determined to be medically vulnerable. Half of those people have co-occurring psychiatric, substance abuse and chronic medical conditions. Twenty-one percent (95) were found to have cirrhosis or end-stage liver disease, and roughly one-fifth (89) were categorized as having experienced frostbite or hypothermia.
The average age of respondents was 48, and the majority — 79 percent — were male.
Among other services is a chance for low-level offenders to have their day in court.
For many, homelessness can compound an existing criminal record. Gentry explained that often an individual charged with public intoxication or vagrancy will miss a summons, and charges mount. After all, it’s difficult to issue a request to appear to someone without a mailbox.
“They will be doing screenings and giving folks court dates for the following Tuesday,” Gentry said. “They’ll have a chance to go and get their record expunged. It’s non-threatening, and they get to see firsthand what the courts can do for them.”
Joining the movement this year is Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson.
“In sports, you always hear the phrase, ‘Go hard or go home.’ But there are thousands of people in Nashville who don’t have a home,” Johnson said last week. “Let’s get together as a community and do what we can to make a difference.”
In addition to lending his name and efforts to the cause, Johnson has made a large donation of Nike sweatshirts and socks to support the event and will be featured in a series of public service announcements on behalf of the Key Alliance.