photos by MICHAEL NOTT
The Metropolitan Homelessness Commission’s Encampments Task Force is continuing discussions as it works to produce detailed recommendations for an authorized homeless encampment proposal for the City of Nashville.
Judith Tackett, the assistant director of the commission, told The Contributor this past week that, while the task force had provided a first draft of recommendations on what the city could do about unauthorized encampments to the commission, they had asked for more time to discuss the issue of authorized encampments.
“It’s a difficult task,” Tackett said. “There was just a lot of discussion, but not a lot of specific outcomes, and they’re still talking.”
The task force plans to return to the next commission meeting in May with its full recommendations for what the city can do about the issue of homeless encampments, she added.
Once those recommendations are brought to the commission, the commission will decide on what to do with it “where it’s going and what that turns into,” Tackett said.
“That will be the discussion at the commission level, but that hasn’t happened yet,” she said.
The commission created the task force to look at encampments in response to a community need to have a discussion about the issue and gain some direction about what the community can do to address the problems that can arise around encampments, Tackett said.
Currently, all of the encampments in the Nashville area are “unauthorized,” she explained.
The task force’s first draft of recommendations for unauthorized encampments calls for the city to create a Metro “Homeless Outreach Team,” which “should serve as a trained unit to deal with encampments and street homelessness and be supplemental to and in partnership with existing community outreach efforts.”
Additionally, the task force’s initial recommendations call for a “clear protocol” to be established that will outline how Metro responds to community calls about unauthorized campsites. This protocol would be expected to consider the location of the campsite, the number of people staying there and their needs, and the timeline and process for any sort of eviction, including a notification period and safe storage of the residents’ property.
The recommendations also call for all workers, agencies, and stakeholders to continue working toward permanent housing solutions for the homeless, and to avoid actively seeking out and dismantling encampments without alternative options available for the camp residents.
According to a statement from the Mayor’s Office, Nashville Mayor Megan Barry “appreciates the efforts” the Homelessness Commission and the task force have undertaken to address the issue of encampments in Davidson County.
In addition to the work being done by the task force and commission, Barry has for the past couple of months held an interdepartmental roundtable discussion on the issue of how to handle unauthorized encampments around the city, according to the statement.
“This has resulted in efforts to clean-up campsites around the city, while being considerate not to disturb the belongings of those living in the area, as well as increased efforts from homeless outreach teams to assist in finding alternative accommodations for those residing in Fort Negley before the April 15th deadline to vacate the area so the park can be restored to its intended use,” the statement said.
According to the statement, although Barry is opposed to the use of the city’s public parks as campgrounds for the homeless, “she is pursuing a compassionate and service-oriented approach” to ending that practice in a manner that “recognizes the needs” of population residing in camps.
“The Mayor’s overall goal remains finding permanent housing solutions for those who are experiencing homelessness, while treating them with dignity and respect in the process,” the Mayor’s Office statement said.
And in light of the impending evacuation of the Fort Negley encampment – as well as the recent seasonal end to Room In The Inn -- members of the outreach community, as well as the homeless themselves, agree that there is a definite need for new protocols to be adopted with relation to homeless encampments.
Sam Lester, an outreach worker and the director of advocacy for Open Table Nashville, explained the city is having a difficult time facing the reality that there isn’t enough shelter space in the city for all of the citizens facing homelessness.
“If they all sought shelter, the few shelters there are would probably be overwhelmed,” Lester told The Contributor last week. “And that means that people without resources have no place to sleep. They sleep where they can.”
According to the most recent Mayor’s Report on Hunger and Homelessness, there were more than 12,000 unique individuals that stayed in shelters or transitional housing in the last year, which doesn’t count most of the thousands of homeless school children enrolled in Davidson County schools, or their custodial parents, Lester said.
And while the preferred solution is permanent, affordable housing, encampments provide some alternative for those experiencing homelessness to avoid being “fined or cited for crimes of daily living – things that they have to do,” such as sleeping, Lester said. “You can’t really live without sleep.”
“Many businesses in the city, including churches have signed trespass waivers, which allow police to come and cite people found resting there,” he added.
“This sort of cycling in and out of people through citation, arrests, and often jail-time for these crimes of daily living is incredibly destructive for people, pushes them further into homelessness, increases the level of trauma and does nothing to help them get out of the situation. It’s counterproductive,” Lester said.
And according to Lester, even without a ballooning number of people experiencing homelessness, not every unhoused person can actually access the available shelter space – including homeless couples, people with pets, and people with medical conditions like schizophrenia or seizures.
“These people have no choice but to sleep outside. And the lack of any kind of authorized encampment in Nashville, means they’re forced to sleep in places that are on public property, but are consistently deemed illegal,” Lester said.
Additionally, while the shelters around the city are better than nothing, and their work is greatly appreciated, finding shelter is difficult for the homeless who are employed. Because the shelters expect anyone staying there to arrive by 5 p.m., any unhoused persons who work have trouble finding shelter space, Lester said.
And most of the city’s homeless are from the Nashville area, and “what’s more, they pay taxes,” such as sales taxes when purchases are made, or property taxes when they’re able to stay at a hotel or find affordable housing,” Lester said.
The city’s public parks contain amenities for its citizens who have money and leisure time – such as tennis courts or golf courses, Lester said. “But for people who are dispossessed amongst us – the people who are most in need – we don’t seem to be able to find any space where they would be allowed to stay without being harassed,” he added.
He argued that if the Metro government didn’t want the homeless in encampments like Negley, then they should provide Nashville’s unhoused citizens with another location to move to.
“Captain” Chris Scott F., a longtime Negley resident, questioned why the city government would feel it to be so necessary to do away with the camp.
“Look at how beautiful this place is,” he said.
The Fort Negley homeless encampment – possibly the largest of the city’s more than 200 encampments – features a number of semi-permanent camp sites, spread throughout the wooded area next to the Adventure Science Center along Bass Road in South Nashville. The camp sites, which are located along nicely mulched paths, feature wooden decks covered by tents and tarps, complete with amenities like cook stoves, chairs, radios, and even gardens.
Captain, who said he had been at Negley off and on for about seven years, and had helped build the decks, design the structures, and make the camp what it is today, added that he’s liked the opportunity to work with the city to get the camp sanctioned, and “set the stage and set the bar high for the nation to see what we’ve done, and to follow what we’ve done.”
Captain explained that homelessness “could happen to anybody.”
“There are so many different issues and aspects to homelessness, and you can’t stereotype anything about it,” Captain said. “Everybody has their reasons and it’s not always mistakes.”
Captain told The Contributor about Steve, one of the camp’s residents, who had found himself a resident there as the result of catastrophic health problems and subsequent expensive medical operations.
According to Captain, Steve – who is a licensed, but out of work, electrician – had been unable to find employment and would likely be walking on down the road to another location once the city evacuates the Ft. Negley encampment.
“The greatest need of the homeless here in Nashville, Tennessee – and this needs to be acknowledged – is a place to store what little bit of stuff they have, where it’s not going to be stolen, where they can access it and where they can build from that little start,” Captain said.
According to Captain, several of the camp residents have found “recovery” and “restoration for their lives” at Negley. With a safe place to call home, store their things and return to each night, many of them have been able to get jobs, and begin rebuilding their lives, he said.
“We don’t want to take charity – if we’re working, we’re just not making enough, and yet we don’t want to take the government handout, then we should not be forced to,” Captain said. “We just need a place to start.”