Something has to change…


It’s a familiar story.

Persons without homes in Nashville try to figure out a safe space to stay while they figure out a means to move into stable housing. While the existing sheltering system is available for some, there are others who can’t work within that system. Some of these folks are in couples (who need one another’s care and support) who fear being separated in a system that makes no provision for partners to stay together. Others are people with pets who provide a source of care and stability to them in a time of great uncertainty. Others simply can’t mentally handle being in a facility housing hundreds of people.

Over time, they build relationships with others, and together they discover a safe space to camp out. Some of these encampments are well hidden, while others are in public spaces on public land. With time, these encampments become places of refuge and support as trust is built. As they develop, outreach workers from organizations like Open Table Nashville, The Park Center, and countless faith-based groups arrive to provide resources and support as they work to identify more permanent housing options for these residents.

However, seemingly out of the blue, an announcement will be made by the Mayor’s Office, the Metro Nashville Police Department, or some other government entity that the encampment can no longer exist and must be disbanded. Very often, there is little guidance regarding where these residents of our city can go. Often, deadlines for closing the camps come and go in the light of media attention, but in the end, folks who are trying to exist get scattered to the wind without much hope or support until another encampment in another location arises. We’ve seen the same pattern year after year for at least the last 4 mayoral administrations, including the recent moves to close down that long-running encampment under the Jefferson Street Bridge.

Yes, the story is familiar, but it’s time to write a new one.

For many years, Nashville has invested in a “housing first” approach to addressing homelessness. This philosophy is based on data that shows that moving folks into stable housing prior to addressing other issues leads to positive outcomes. Again and again, we have seen stories of transformed lives through this approach.

However, as many of us know, there simply isn’t enough housing for impoverished persons in Nashville. While efforts are being made at many levels to create housing options, the work is slow and in some cases, the definition of “affordability” is beyond what many homeless folks can afford. Simply put, our current models of service are inadequate to meet the needs of a certain segment of our homeless population and it is far past time to consider additional options.

The current “whack-a-mole” approach to encampments is based on a myth that if we disperse those living there they will simply go away. But that approach is destined to fail because the people living there are citizens of our city who call it home. In a very real sense, they aren’t homeless – Nashville and the neighborhoods that make up our city are their home. However, they have reached a place where the only option for survival is to pitch a tent. These persons have a right to exist and reside in our city and we (as fellow taxpayers and citizens) have a responsibility to discern how we help them to do so.

Given the repeated failures of our city to address the needs of these folks, I believe it is time for us to revisit the need for government-sanctioned encampments in Davidson County. These would be places where persons are allowed to create a temporary home until they can find permanent housing. Sanctioned encampments provide a more effective means for outreach workers to find and interact with homeless individuals, assisting them through the navigation process for housing. By providing a stable environment with basic services for sanitation and security, persons living in these encampments are better able to navigate the road toward more permanent change.

Of course, as the leader of a community that works regularly with homeless individuals, I am not blind to the issues of concern with encampments. Liability concerns are always present for all our us. Yet, our job as leaders of the community is not to minimize risk, but to think boldly about how to best address the needs of our community. Sanctioned encampments provide an opportunity to ensure hospitality, sanitation, and security in ways that are not possible when they arise organically and are hidden from sight. Sanctioned encampments are not a move away from the Housing First philosophy that has guided our work with the homeless for several years, but rather are one step along the way as we treat those without housing with dignity and respect. While I would love to live in a city in which encampments were not needed, until we can deal with the shortage of housing that is truly affordable to the impoverished I believe we have little choice but to recognize they will be a part of our city for the near future.

With that in mind, I have asked Mayor Cooper to establish a task force that involves leaders from the homeless services community, residents of current encampments, faith leaders, and other stakeholders to research and develop a proposal for sanctioned homeless encampments at various locations throughout the city. This task force would be empowered to determine the factors that lead people to seek shelter of this type and identify the basic needs that would ensure the creation of safe spaces. They would identify potential locations for sanctioned encampments and work with community leaders to build support for these efforts.

Is this a difficult task? Of course it is! There will be pushback from businesses and residents who don’t want homeless folks in their backyard (although, I dare say, homeless folks are probably already there, just well hidden). This is a major challenge with many obstacles to be overcome. And yet, we have seen again and again over the past several years that when faced with insurmountable challenges Nashvillians have risen up to meet them and create creative means for taking care of one another.

It is interesting to me that we have spent energy and dollars creating parks for our pets, places where our pets are secure and safe as they grow and thrive. Maybe it’s time to build “residential parks” where those who have no place to lay their head can be given safe and healthy spaces to rebuild their lives until they can move into a space to call their own.

We are a city filled with creative and talented people.

Let’s come together to write a new story for our city regarding our care and support of people with no place to go.

———

The Rev. Jay Voorhees is the pastor at City Road Chapel, a United Methodist community that walks with the homeless of Madison, TN as a part of their call to love God and love neighbor.

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