Nashville, Tenn. (TN Tribune)–At the January Continuum of Care (COC) Homeless Planning Council (HPC) Meeting, Jay Servais, the Interim Director of the Metro Homeless Impact Division (MHID), provided HPC members with a draft of a plan to address outdoor homelessness entitled “Housing Crisis Resolution Strategy for Displaced Nashville Neighborhoods” (see attachment).

Some HPC members voiced concerns and asked Servais to present this proposal in greater detail at their February meeting. Concerns included ethical considerations as well as intent of the plan to be a concerted effort to close encampments without alternatives for people who cannot access other shelters or housing resources. 

At the February 9th HPC meeting, Servais failed to present this plan to the HPC for feedback or buy-in. When HPC member and Open Table Nashville’s Executive Director, Paula Foster, asked Servais if he was already in the process of implementing this plan, he informed the council that they are implementing it at the Jefferson Street Bridge encampment as a pilot program.

The camp is now slated for closure by “mid-February”. Servais said camp residents had been given a 30 day verbal notice and were working with providers on housing, but he failed to confirm a date for closure. We spoke to residents of Jefferson Street Bridge last evening, and only two residents knew that the city had plans to close the camp, although they were unsure of the precise closure date or what the closure would look like. One resident received this information from someone else on the streets, and the other resident first heard about the city’s intent to close the camp from a news station that interviewed her just yesterday. 

 We believe that MHID needs to immediately halt the implementation of their plan to address outdoor homelessness until it is vetted by the HPC. Not only does the current plan provide misleading information about the quantity of low-barrier permanent housing actually available, it also fails to offer safe and legal alternatives for people in encampments to exist before they get into housing (like sanctioned camps, safe zones, micro-home or pallet villages, etc.).  It also circumvents the current citywide Coordinated Entry process that prioritizes housing for the people who are the most vulnerable–not those in a camp that is politically expedient to clear. We are deeply concerned about the intent and consequences of the plan outlined in MHID’s proposal, as detailed below. 

We are concerned about the dangerous precedent this plan sets. We fear this plan intends to systematically close and physically clear encampments without creating adequate alternatives. It fails to recognize the vital role encampments play in Nashville where we lack enough year-round shelter beds and housing units for everyone who is experiencing homelessness. While encampments don’t end homelessness, they provide a place for people who can’t access shelter to exist while they work on permanent housing. Without an accompanying increase in affordable housing units, low-barrier shelter beds, or legal camping options, people experiencing homelessness will be left with nowhere else to sleep except on sidewalks, in doorways, and near business storefronts in even greater frequency then they are already forced to. This plan does not end homelessness; it merely attempts to eliminate homelessness that is visible to the public. 

Nashville does not have enough shelter beds for everyone on the streets. We were acutely reminded of this on Friday, January 7th, when our city experienced extreme cold weather and snow for the first time this season. All shelters in Nashville were over capacity, which resulted in multiple cases where people seeking shelter were turned away from Metro’s Overflow Shelter. Thankfully, providers were able to advocate for some of these individuals. The Nashville Rescue Mission had over 800 guests and Metro’s Overflow Cold Weather Shelter had over 260 guests. RITI was also at capacity this evening. This large influx of people seeking shelter demonstrated our city’s inability to provide enough shelter beds to all those accessing shelter on a single evening, let alone continuously. Until we have an excess of affordable, dignified, and accessible housing in Nashville or adequate low-barrier shelter options, encampments will continue to exist.

The shelter beds we do have are not accessible to everyone. There are many reasons why people experiencing homelessness in Nashville cannot access the shelter options that are currently available. Briefly, couples that do not want to split up cannot seek shelter together in Nashville. Some individuals with pets, high medical needs, those struggling with substance use, those living with their adult opposite-gender children, as well as those on the sex offender registry all have extremely limited or no shelter options available to them. We also affirm the trauma that many people have experienced in congregate shelter environments. As a result, camping outdoors is truly the only option for many people. 

It is inequitable and irresponsible to prioritize and allocate already scarce housing resources based on a geographic locale selected with questionable intent. Nashville’s current Coordinated Entry process prioritizes its housing resources to those identified as the most vulnerable. This plan, however, circumvents that process, prioritizing those living in geographic areas with the loudest antagonistic voices and the strongest competing interests. We anticipate that the encampments chosen will be those under the most public scrutiny and are most politically expedient to close. We are also concerned that a single service provider was chosen to enact this plan alongside MHID with no transparency or engagement from the rest of the provider community. 

Housing availability and placement feasibility is misrepresented in this proposal. This plan is not accompanied by an appropriate and reasonable plan to also increase the number of affordable and accessible units in our housing stock. The plan relies on the same already scarce resources that too many individuals are competing for. MHID’s recent feature on Fox 17 painted a false picture, boasting a 4,000 unit increase of housing due to MHID’s landlord incentive program alone, the Low Barrier Housing Collective. We clarified this statement, and while the portfolios of the landlords who recently joined this program do contain this acclaimed 4,000 units, it is important to note that these are already leased units with active tenants. When any of these or the rest of the units associated with the collective do become available (about 165 units per month, on average), people experiencing homelessness do not get prioritization over anyone else in the public who may also be applying to said unit. It is important to remember that these units are extremely competitive even among those not experiencing homelessness. In addition, this quoted 4,000 units includes landlords offering Rapid Rehousing (RRH) units, which we do not believe should be counted as permanent housing. We also know that historically, one third of vouchers issued in Nashville go unused due to a dwindling market of landlords and properties willing to accept them in a competitive and commodified housing market. The proposal implies that housing will be found for all encampment residents, but also lists as part of its final phase that staff will “confirm with inhabitants that encampment will be decompressed and all persons must find alternative housing.” We fear individuals will fall through the cracks of this programming and then be forced to relocate to another illegal camp. 

MHID has now publicly admitted that this plan was enacted on a pilot basis at Jefferson Street Bridge without community input. We do not support the creation or implementation of efforts that directly affect the lives of our friends experiencing homelessness that lack community input. After Wednesday’s HPC meeting, it is clear that MHID had no intention of obtaining or incorporating any feedback from those directly impacted by this plan nor from the HPC, which specifically was created in order to solicit expertise and community agreement across service providers, the Mayor’s office, Metro Council, and those with lived experience of homelessness. Mayor John Cooper recently repeatedly discussed the importance for all recommendations related to services and housing for those experiencing homelessness to go through the HPC in his letter provided to HPC members prior to the February 9th meeting. In the letter, Mayor Cooper writes, “You will note a theme in the response that follows: It is important that all recommendations flow through to the Nashville-Davidson County Homelessness Planning Council which was created to do this work…this organization was created by the Metro Council in 2018 to be our local planning body, following the recommendations of a joint task force, and the requirements by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)”. The Mayor goes on to remind us that, “The Council’s ordinance was responsive to the Federal Government’s HEARTH Act, as it established the HPC as the group that governs our Continuum of Care (CoC)”. We are concerned about the trajectory of MHID and want to highlight the apparent disregard that MHID appears to have for HPC recommendations.

Encouraging Metro Nashville Police Department to both enter and close encampments with service providers is not trauma-informed. This approach not only perpetuates distrust between service providers and our unhoused neighbors, but also perpetuates the criminalization of homelessness. Likewise, employing outreach workers to carry out the enforcement of camp closures asks organizations to jeopardize the years if not decades of time and energy spent attempting to build relationships and trust within our respective communities of individuals we serve.

This proposal is a moral misuse of community resources and monies. Time, energy, and resources such as these should be spent advocating for and creating the new units of affordable housing we desperately need, not trying to close encampments that provide a place for people to exist while they work toward housing. Until safe, dignified, accessible, and affordable housing exists for all of those in our community, it is unjust to raid, evict, and close homeless encampments. Open Table Nashville adamantly opposes MHID’s “Housing Crisis Resolution Strategy.”