“Inundated with Vagrants”: Broadening the Discussion on Downtown Homelessness

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

In a recent public letter to Mayor Karl Dean, Ed Mroz, General Manager of the Sheraton Nashville Downtown Hotel writes, “We are and have been inundated with vagrants…I have been forced to hire staff to do nothing but prevent homeless people from entering the facility, using the restrooms, sleep[ing] in our fire escapes and interface[ing] with our out of town visitors.” His words, pointed as they are, echo the concerns of many who have recently come forward petitioning the Mayor to respond to the increasingly visible transient community downtown.

Downtown Nashville is home to an undeniably diverse array of people: the business community, tourists, condo-dwellers, those in need of social services, and others. Each group of people has needs, responsibilities and rights, though coexisting in such close proximity has been the source of much dialogue—both constructive and destructive—about “the homeless problem” in Nashville. Rather than articulating this as “the homeless problem,” however, I propose that we redefine the “problem” as one of coexistence and of upholding the dignity of all downtown citizens—those with and without homes alike.

If we look closely, the needs of the homeless community may coincide with the needs of other downtown citizens more than we realize. For surely both groups have the need for a safe place to live, work, and obtain needed services. Surely both groups would like to see an end to harassment. Surely both groups want every citizen to be able to use proper restroom facilities rather than streets corners, alleys, and bushes. Surely both groups would like to see the end of public tax dollars going toward court, jail, and other emergency costs.

The hub of recent discussions about downtown homelessness is the Library Park on Church St. between 6th and 7th Avenues. This park is just across from the main public library which provides some of the only public restrooms and drinking fountains in Nashville, as well as an escape from the unbearable summer heat, access to computers, proximity to service providers, and other needed resources.

In a July 16th news story and subsequent article addressing downtown homelessness in WKRN’s “That’s Messed Up” series, RJ Stillwell, CEO and Founding Partner of Sound Healthcare says, “Downtown represents an image for the city…But there is no concerted effort between government and law enforcement. We don’t have sufficient laws on the books to put teeth into what [an] officer can do.” He continues by saying that Nashville has a higher per capita homeless population than New York, adding that, “Giuliani cleaned it up. He altered their laws to impact it.” I assume that when Stillwell says “it,” he is referring to “the homeless problem.” Again, I insist that this is a faulty and destructive way of articulating the complex reality of the problems that are really at hand—problems which lie beyond mere law enforcement issues.

Indeed, there is much dialogue about the need to find “solutions” to these “problems,” so what can we say about the nature of adequate solutions for all downtown citizens? Foundationally, an adequate solution should respect the rights and dignity of all citizens and should not involve selective enforcement of laws and ordinances. An adequate solution should involve the voices and concerns of all citizens and should not put the “quality of life” of one group of citizens over another. What if the solution is not necessarily to “add some teeth” to existing ordinances and laws as Stillwell suggests, but to add some teeth to our social services system? What if the solution is not to move all of the benches out of the Library Park (as some have suggested), but rather to create public restrooms and drinking fountains in other areas of the city? In WKRN’s “That’s Messed Up” story, Lt. Andrea Swisher of the Central Precinct, who has had extensive experience with the homeless community, says, “What I want to stress is this is not just a police issue; it’s a social service issue and community issue at large. Maybe what they are seeing [is] due to the lack of resources.”

Maybe the solution is not to spend more public tax dollars on court, jail, and emergency service expenses, but to find creative ways to better fund street outreach workers, low-income housing, and social services such as physical and mental health care. For example, some cities like Denver, Colorado use tax credits to subsidize the funding of low-income housing. Since Nashville is currently leveraging a 6% tax on hotels to help fund the new convention center, there must be other ways that we can encourage developers to increase the affordable and low-income housing stock in Nashville.

And if we really want to dig deeper into the issue of who pays taxes and who doesn’t, let it be said that a large portion of the homeless community uses our city’s hotels and motels as housing and therefore help pay for the new convention center. Knock on any door of a hotel or motel on Murfreesboro Pk., Trinity Lane, Dickerson Rd. and others and you will find that many of the residents are using the rooms as housing units. If someone has an unreliable source of income or employment (i.e. day labor pools), staying at a hotel allows that person to avoid paying expensive deposits and initial utility expenses, paying rent on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis instead.

Statistics and Common Misconceptions

There are many common misconceptions about homelessness that need clarification. For instance, many presume that the homeless community is lazy and that they should all just get a job, but The Key Alliance has reported that approximately 50% of the homeless community works and many more are seeking work. Nashville’s Annual Vulnerability Index Survey reported in 2009 that of Nashville’s homeless community, 31% have a physical disability that limits their mobility and 45% have experienced or currently experience mental illness. In addition, if someone is applying for a job in an already troubled job market and lacks a proper address, adequate transportation, a reliable phone number, or an ID, chances are that he/she will not get the job.

Many also presume that people sleeping on the streets should just go to the Nashville Rescue Mission, but if Nashville only has approximately 1,500 shelter and transitional housing beds (calculated from Nashville’s Annual Homeless Count) and approximately 4,000 homeless individuals (the widely accepted estimate from advocates, The Key Alliance, and post-count surveys which follow the annual count), then there is a very legitimate reason why some people sleep outdoors and in encampments. The current demand for shelter outweighs the supply. In addition, Nashville cannot currently accommodate homeless pet owners, homeless spouses, or other specific demographics in existing shelter space.

What’s Really “Messed Up” and How to Move Forward

Downtown resident Bob Watson is quoted in an August 7th article in The Tennessean (as well as on the “That’s Messed Up” blog) saying, “My assumption is that we are the ‘benefactors’ of the closure of tent city.” Watson may be closer to the truth than many realize. Before the flood in May, Tent City, imperfect as it was, provided transitional housing for approximately 140 homeless individuals, many of whom were pet owners and/or living with their spouse. Advocates from the faith community as well as city officials are currently working on plans to create a structured alternative transitional housing community that would fill the gap in Nashville’s transitional housing stock left by the closure of Tent City.

Maybe what’s really “messed up” in downtown Nashville is not that poor people are visible when they congregate on Church St. near one of the only public restrooms in the city, use the park fountain to rinse out the only shirt they own, or urinate in the bushes when restrooms can’t be accessed, but that we, as a city, have failed to provide for the basic human needs of all our citizens. Maybe what’s really “messed up” is that we allow so many human beings to live in subhuman conditions in our own backyard; that we have a glut of empty, high-end luxury condominiums but the waiting list for subsidized, low-income housing is between six months to two years long; that the taxes of those who cannot afford or access permanent housing are helping to fund an entertainment facility.

Yes, “solutions” should be worked toward, but the solution is not to push the homeless community “out of sight, out of mind” by criminalizing them in the downtown area. Existing quality of life ordinances already violate constitutional rights by targeting the homeless community and selectively enforcing laws. If such ordinances are given more “teeth,” the city risks lawsuits and demonstrations reminiscent of the Civil Rights era. It is social and economic discrimination to ticket and arrest homeless individuals for “obstructing the passageway” and “public intoxication” and to turn away as tourists and college students congregate on sidewalks or stumble around from bar to bar, sometimes with open containers. It is discrimination to ticket and arrest a homeless man for cutting through a downtown parking lot which has a trespass warrant and to ignore the instances where the business community participates in the exact same “offense.”

In addition, if downtown residents and business communities want to take action on making downtown a better place for all its citizens, they can help fund (or advocate for the funding of) street outreach efforts, rental subsidies, the construction of more public restrooms and drinking fountains, low-income housing, and a structured alternative to Tent City. Private and public entities in Nashville have been discussing and working towards solutions for some time. Such entities include The Key Alliance who is working to increase funding for street outreach and low-income housing and faith-based initiatives led by Doug Sanders, Jeannie Alexander, and others who are working to create a structured alternative to Tent City. It is not time to reinvent the wheel, but for more people to jump on board and add some teeth to the voices already calling out for change.

If you’re interested in learning more about some of the available homeless services and resources in Nashville, visit http://www.thekeyalliance.org/findhelp. If you are interested in facilitating an outreach training or learning more about ways to help the displaced residents of Tent City, contact Amos House Community at amoshousemercyfund@gmail.com.

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