Be Invisible or Be Arrested: Gaps in Services and the Need for Alternative “Tent Cities”

by Lindsey Krinks, published in the August issue of The Contributor

Carol is a single mother with a 24-year-old son, Jesse. Jesse has a developmental disorder which affects his ability to function as an independent adult, yet doesn’t qualify him to receive disability benefits. In the fall of 2009, Carol lost her job, fell behind on her bills, and was evicted from her home. Because of Jesse’s age, he couldn’t stay in the Women’s Mission with his mother, yet he couldn’t function alone in the Men’s Mission due to his disorder. After wading through program after program and being told that they “didn’t meet criteria” or that they would have to split up in order to receive services, Carol and Jesse heard about Tent City and moved into a tent where they could live together while navigating Nashville’s social services system.

Lori and Rich have been together for three years and are devoted to their dogs. When they became homeless, staying at traditional shelters was not an option for them. Their lives, homes, and jobs had crumbled in around them and they had no stability or security, save in the reassurance of their relationship and the unconditional love of their pets. So rather than living 2.5 miles apart in the Men’s and Women’s Mission and giving up their dogs, they chose to camp in Tent City. After all, in Tent City, they could keep their family together, have a place to store their belongings, and work with outreach workers to begin rebuilding their lives.

Eli has paranoid schizophrenia and a criminal background and dreams of having his own apartment. For now, however, he is just trying to stay on his meds and out of jail. Crowded environments like shelters, group homes, and soup kitchens agitate his paranoia so he tries to strike a balance between keeping to himself and avoiding complete isolation. After trying to live in a variety of shelters and ending up in crisis centers, he decided to try camping. He established a quaint, quiet camp on the edge of Tent City and continued living day to day.

People like Carol, Jesse, Lori, Rich, and Eli fall through the cracks of Nashville’s existing homeless shelters and transitional housing programs. Without a safe place to go, they will spiral further into their despair and receive citations (and therefore court fees and a record) for non-criminal offenses such as sleeping on park benches (“trespassing”) with their belongings and pets at their sides (“obstructing the passageway”). In a city with an estimated homeless population of 4,000 but only about 1,500 beds at shelters and other transitional housing facilities, thousands are left with only two options: be invisible or be arrested.

 *     *     *

In 2008, Mayor Karl Dean stopped Metro from bulldozing Tent City and asked the Homelessness Commission to oversee the camp and assist its residents in accessing permanent housing. For two years, they have worked toward that goal in hopes of eliminating the need for a tent city, but in May of this year, flood waters destroyed the camp displacing approximately 140 residents and over a dozen pets. Even after the waters receded, residents were not allowed back because the area was deemed a “health and safety hazard” by Metro.

So where are the residents now? Many are camping illegally downtown, over 25 have obtained permanent housing, and others fluctuate between couch surfing, staying at cheap hotels, and living in make-shift transitional housing facilities provided by local churches. Currently, several former residents are living in Hobson United Methodist’s parsonage in East Nashville. The set-up at Hobson is based on community houses of hospitality like The Open Door Community in Atlanta. There are house rules, house meetings, a curfew, volunteer hours, and chores. Every night, one to two outreach workers or volunteers spend the night at the house to build community and accountability with the residents. While this model is working well, it only accommodates a small number of people.

Since the beginning of July, Metro representatives from the Mayor’s Office, Homelessness Commission, and Chamber of Commerce acknowledged the need to fill the gap in services exacerbated by the closing of Tent City and offered to partner with advocates and faith-based groups like Amos House Community and Otter Creek Church to work toward solutions. The ambitious goal is to have a permanent site for an alternative to tent city by the beginning of October. This site would be a structured, transitional housing site that can meet the needs of those who fall through the cracks of the existing system.

Models for the proposed site are grounded in providing hospitality to the stranger and meeting basic needs like shelter, food, clothing, and sanitation concerns so that residents can address the reasons they became homeless and begin to rebuild their lives with support from service providers and community mentors. For the last year and a half, advocates in Nashville have been researching models of existing officially sanctioned encampments around the nation, particularly Mobile Loaves and Fishes’ Habitat on Wheels Village in Austin, TX.

While part of the short term strategy to alleviate homelessness in Nashville involves creating alternative shelters and transitional housing facilities, the big picture strategy involves creating enough accessible and affordable permanent housing for all of Nashville’s citizens. With enough housing, every advocate in town would be thrilled to no longer worry themselves with replacing tent cities, but despite Nashville’s Strategic Plan to End Chronic Homelessness which was implemented in 2005, the city is still a long way off.

Until a permanent site is secured for the residents of Tent City, advocates are asking for space in another church or gathering place where 20-40 additional residents can stay while they are working on obtaining permanent housing. If you are interested in volunteering or have resources that might be helpful, please e-mail amoshousemercyfund@gmail.com.

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