By Peter White
NASHVILLE, TN — On a bitter windy January night, a homeless threesome huddled behind the VIP Clothing store on Nolensville Rd, sipping vodka and smoking cigarettes to ward off the bone-chilling cold. It was 5°F and even wearing a good coat I was shivering after just a few minutes spent in their company.
“This ain’t cold compared to what it was,” said Misty C dismissively. “It was colder last night,” she said.
“Aren’t you going to the shelter?” I asked her.
“Not tonight,” she said, implying she might go to the city’s emergency shelter at the East Park Community Center the next night if temperatures stayed near zero.
This was their spot, Misty explained.
“As long as we keep the trash cleaned up they don’t mind us sitting here,” she said. “And keep the riff raff down,” added Angela W.
Misty and a handful of others have tents pitched under an overpass. Despite Samuel Lester’s best efforts to coax them into his white van, he got no takers this night. They were glad to see him, however. He passed out a few canisters of propane they would use for heat. He passes out gloves, blankets, and sleeping bags when he has them.
Lester runs a homeless outreach program for Open Table. He was out all but one night during the last of December when artic weather froze much of the Midwest and eastern U.S.
He drives a route through back alleys and parking lots in South Nashville and stops at spots frequented by the homeless: McDonalds, Burger King, Arby’s, Walmart, or the Krogers on E. Thompson Lane. He loads up the white van and takes the homeless to a shelter that will put them up for the night.
Sometimes people are waiting, sometimes they call him and he picks them up. Sometimes he sees somebody trudging along the road with a small backpack and stops to see if they have a warm place to sleep that night. Sometime they do. Some times they don’t but would rather be outside than at the Rescue Mission on Lafayette St.
“The Mission has a reputation as a place where you get your shoes stolen off your feet while you sleep,” Lester said. He also said that he was very thankful for the refuge the Mission provides but it is so large with so many people it scares some people away.
“If you’re psychologically fragile, going into an extremely large place where everything is regimented is probably something you’re not going to do,” he said.
Some people want to be able to drink and the Mission has a strict no drinking policy.
“A lot of people have pets and they don’t want to leave them out in the cold,” Lester added.
Neither the Mission nor Room at the Inn allows couples or pets but Lester said Room at the Inn would provide shelter to couples and people with pets soon.
Since many homeless people with a partner or a pet avoid the shelters, the city is providing a doggy hotel in a heated trailer outside the Park Center emergency shelter on Woodland St. where people can board their pets overnight.
Misty and several other homeless people sleep in tents now but they once lived in houses nearby.
“I was born and raised here,” said Marcus C, 53. Although he is now on the street, Marcus has lived in South Nashville all his life and he remembers the elementary school he attended where Southern Hills Medical Center is now located.
We’ve been out here for 15 years,” said Misty, who is white.
“We’re family,” said Marcus, who is black.
“This is my home. This is where I’m going to die. I’ve got lung cancer. I’ve got liver cancer. This is my family right here. All these people are my family and I’m going to die around them. This is where I want to be,” Misty said.
21 Hundred or 21 Thousand Homeless in Nashville?
The city says there are 2300 homeless people in Nashville. Lester, who knows scores of them by name, says the real number is ten times that. It depends on your definition of homeless, who is doing the counting, and when the counting is done.
The point-in-time count, which the city uses, is based on a HUD definition that counts people in shelters or places not meant for human habitation, like hospital emergency rooms. But homeless people in hospital beds are not counted. Neither are prisoners.
The count takes place one night in February between 9 pm and 3 am. “It’s like counting cars on I-24 between 9pm and 3am in the morning and saying this number represents how many cars are travelling on I-24,” said Lester.
Misty’s underground family in South Nashville would very likely be asleep in their tents and be missed in the city’s homeless count. If the Audubon Society did its annual bird count between 9pm and 3am in mid-February, they wouldn’t count many birds. Yet that is just what happens with the homeless count.
“That’s a way to deemphasize the number of people experiencing homelessness by narrowly defining it to avoid those people,” Lester said.
A more accurate count would be to count the number of people, and especially families, who experience homelessness sometime during the year. The U.S. Department of Education defines homelessness as someone who lacks a fixed adequate nighttime residence. Using HUD’s definition, people who are staying in a motel the night of the count, are not considered homeless.
“There is a huge number of people who are chronically homeless but somehow always miss the point- in-time count,” said Lester. “The problem is that everybody talks about it as if it was an annual count which is absurd.”
Metro schools track homeless kids and those figures indicate there are 3,407 homeless children in Metro Schools. But Open Table estimated the number is closer to 4,500 by using census data.
School stats are self-reported by people who don’t always admit they are homeless because of the stigma and the very real fear that the Department of Children Services would get involved if they find out their children are living in a car, for example.
And many people who may be staying with relatives or borrow money to rent an apartment they can’t retain over time, don’t consider themselves homeless even though they would be considered homeless in an annual count using the Department of Education’s definition.
According to Catherine Knowles, Director of Metro Schools’ Homeless Education Resources Outreach program (HERO), the actual number of kids in Metro schools experiencing homelessness is more like 8,000.
100,000 Homes Campaign
In 2013, Nashville and many other cities adopted a “Housing First” philosophy to end chronic homelessness. The basic idea is to get people into housing before worrying about anything else.
Nashville’s Homeless Commission and several nonprofits like Open Table got the most vulnerable into housing as quickly as possible using federal Section 8 housing vouchers.
Free or subsidized housing for the poor isn’t just philanthropic. It’s economical. A 2006 Vanderbilt study found the city was paying about $8 million in extra policing costs, $8 million for housing the poor in jails, and roughly $8 million in court-related costs for punishing the homeless.
A 2016 study by the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law found Denver spent nearly three-quarters of a million dollars in 2014 enforcing five anti-homeless ordinances. Six other Colorado cities spent five million dollars enforcing fourteen anti-homeless ordinances over a five-year period.
It costs about $14,000 a year to get someone into supportive housing that includes social services. A number of studies have shown that the price of chronic homelessness, including medical expenses for the indigent, cost taxpayers about $35,000 a year.
Conservatives have done the math and that’s why red states like Utah signed on to the 100,000 Homes campaign. It saves about $21,000 a year for every homeless person you get into permanent housing.
The city’s response to homelessness between 2013-2015 was successful in getting about one thousand homeless people a year into permanent housing. Lester says the retention rate was about 75 percent, a good number. But there is a problem: the number of homeless doesn’t seem to change.
“The point-in-time count captured roughly the same number of people, year after year after year, as if homelessness has not changed over time,” says Lester.
According to the official number of 2300 homeless, Nashville should have already solved its homelessness problem but it hasn’t. Lester says it’s a bogus number.
“Even though we housed 3,000—enough to have solved the problem––– the number has not dropped at all. It’s not a mystery because it’s a really big number,” he said.
Next: Thousands can’t afford high rents and wind up homeless.