By Ashley Perham Main Street Nashville

The encampment under the Jefferson Street Bridge has no residents for the first time in 35 years.

This month was the second time in a year the city has tried to close the encampment.

In May, only 30 individuals were living under the bridge, according to Salvation Army Maj. Ethan Frizzell. Frizzell said as many as 180 people had been living in the camp in the wake of the 2020 tornadoes and COVID-19 pandemic.

During the summer, there would be violence and people would be hurt at the camps, he said.

The Salvation Army made plans to help the last seven individuals move out last May. However, Frizzell said protests showed that the people of Nashville were not comfortable with the camp closing.

The Metro Homeless Impact Division said the camp was closed and verbal and written warnings were issued last summer.

The numbers in the camp grew again, as they usually do after news of a camp closing, Frizzell said. But earlier this month, only eight individuals remained under the bridge.

The Salvation Army made a commitment to help them all.

“It’s not our role to close encampments,” Frizzell said. “We help dissolve them until they’re no longer needed.”

Frizzell said that while the Salvation Army is only one of dozens of service providers that work with people experiencing homelessness in Nashville, the organization was “tied tight” to the Jefferson Street Bridge community due to 35 years of feeding the people there. Even during the uncertain early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Salvation Army worked with the Metro Nashville Police Department to provide meals.

“We’re tied tight to the people. These are our people we have a relationship with so when the city said, ‘Who’s going to help?’ these are our folks,” Frizzell said.

The Salvation Army does not forcibly remove people. Instead, through relationships, opportunities and resources, the organization helps people leave a camp so there’s the least amount of people possible when the city decides to enforce the decision.

Since December 2020, the Salvation Army in Nashville has engaged 942 individuals in case management and coaching, and 336 individuals have been helped into permanent housing.

Scrutiny follows decision

The Metro Homeless Impact Division has faced pushback and scrutiny for the decision.

Ginny Welsch, chair of the Human Services Committee of the Metro Council, said there was no warning to service providers that the camp was going to be cleared.

“What they did completely circumvented that system. (It) put our … federal funding for homelessness at risk,” Welsch said.

Welsch asked Jay Servais, interim MHID director, and Renee Pratt, director of Metro Social Services, to attend a Human Services Committee meeting where they faced questioning for over an hour.

Welsch and others are particularly concerned with whether MHID followed the city’s process of coordinated entry.

Coordinated entry is the way that Nashville matches resources with individuals who need them. Individuals are given a prioritization score and then are matched with resources when they are available.

The resources could be specific to each person, such as resources for veterans or resources for those who need wraparound services.

Coordinated entry is fluid, but there is a written policy that must be followed. The policy has been changed recently to prioritize older individuals and those at risk for COVID-19.

Welsch said coordinated entry could be changed to focus on encampments but that the city doesn’t have money for that.

During the questioning, it was revealed that for the few individuals who did not have housing resources immediately lined up, hotel rooms would be provided with a discretionary fund that Pratt said she could use.

Frizzell said the Salvation Army also would be using funds to put people in hotel rooms.

“If there’s an area that people don’t understand, it’s that we do have the room for grace upon people as we see fit above and beyond just federal regulations,” he said.

Welsch pointed out that the coordinated entry process is supposed to work by having housing resources available before people are moved.

“What they did this weekend is they jumped a bunch of people who weren’t prioritized to the top of the list at the expense of other people,” she said.

Frizzell and Servais said coordinated entry was not circumvented.

An email from the Department of Housing and Urban Development shared by Metro Council member Freddie O’Connell on Twitter said that if a city decides a location can’t be used for an encampment, HUD recommends that there be a plan for those who will be displaced.

“Yes, this goes outside of Coordinated Entry and the ideal prioritization process,” the email said. “This is a tension in literally every community across the country.”

Communication problems

The email also referenced a failure on all sides to communicate clearly and be respectful in Homelessness Planning Council meetings.

The lack of communication was also brought up in Welsch’s questioning.

Someone from MHID said at the meeting the draft plan had been sent four times. O’Connell, who is on the Homelessness Planning Council, said to his understanding, those who didn’t get a paper copy didn’t get a digital copy until Feb. 2.

O’Connell said that in January, he was sent an email saying the digital copy of the draft hadn’t been sent out due to staffing issues.

“The Metro Homeless Impact Division has maintained that leadership has been transparent, communicative and collaborative with regards to testing the outdoor community strategy underway at the Jefferson Street Bridge,” the MHID said in a statement.

In November, Servais was introduced as the interim director and began working with the Salvation Army on the draft plan, MHID said.

In December, according to Homelessness Planning Council meeting minutes, Servais said that an encampment plan had been developed and that it would be brought to the HPC in January.

In January, Servais said he would present case studies to show efficacy of the program. The case study was requested by the HPC, Servais said.

A paper copy was provided to members of the HPC to give feedback before February’s meeting.

At the February meeting, there was not enough time to discuss the overview. Servais told Welsch that the HPC was arguing over a news release and ran out of time.

Servais and MHID call the plan a “draft plan” because it is a workable document until the HPC gives feedback and a final tool is agreed upon.

The camp was set for “restoration” on Feb. 18.

Open Table, another Nashville service provider, said it was concerned that the plan set a precedent of closing camps without having adequate alternatives. The group said the plan provided misleading information about the quantity of low-barrier permanent housing.

It also said most residents didn’t know the city had plans to close the camp.

‘Where can they go?’

Bobby Wilson told Main Street Nashville that he had been living under the bridge for a year or so. He said he thought the closing was “disrespectful.”

“Where can they go?” Wilson said.

Wilson said that while outreach workers had been at the camp, they hadn’t talked with him.

Frizzell said that while he couldn’t guarantee someone wasn’t missed, especially as people moved in as the news broke, a “right and reasonable” effort was made to reach everyone.

The organization had been working to dissolve the camp for at least 30 days, he said.

“We’ll keep compassion with an expectation that at some point the city is going to enforce,” he said.

As of mid-February, everyone under the bridge had a housing coach and they all had a place to go. However, he said, people could change their minds.

On Monday, Frizzell said there had not been an enforcement approach as far as he knew.

Servais said there were no plans to close other encampments right now.

Welsch said the camp closing process had broken trust with service providers and that it was critical to get a director for the department.

She said MHID had been in disarray since former Director Judith Tackett left late last year.

Council approves $500,000 study

Last week, the Metro Council voted to pay $500,000 to Housing NOLA, a company in Louisiana, to study how Nashville governs in relation to homelessness.

The study was Metro’s response to O’Connell’s bill asking for a Metro Office of Housing and Homelessness, which he has deferred until April.

Frizzell said that for Nashville to combat homelessness, the city needs to have a shared narrative and shared goals.

“Nashville has a responsibility in unprecedented growth to provide an unprecedented response through affordable housing,” he said.

This article was first published by Main Street Nashville