A short walk on a muddy but cleared trail, located on an offshoot from one of Nashville’s busiest pikes, reveals a handful of campsites. On one side of the path, a few tents circle around some damp logs, and a shopping cart holds dirty clothes, cans, whatever else fits. A different campsite holds a broken down recliner, empty tuna cans. In another section, a newcomer has thrown up a tent – the absence of the tarp gives away it’s a new camper – and a man sits inside on a pile of clothes smoking a cigarette.
Campsites like these are home to hundreds of people experiencing homelessness in Nashville. While overnight camping is illegal in Tennessee’s public spaces, a new Metro-backed outreach team is focused on making sure those living in the sites have access to life-saving resources including help finding housing.
“We’ve been to about 100 (campsites),” says Sally Besuden. She’s part of the inaugural Nashville Outreach Team for Encampments, also known as NOTE, along with Troy Jenkins and Joseph Parker. Besuden and Jenkins started with NOTE last fall, and Parker joined the team a few months ago.
“I think one thing that drives me is that I feel like everyone deserves a home,” Jenkins says, sitting at his desk at NOTE’s headquarters in Madison.
NOTE is completely grant funded, and operates under the umbrella of the Metro Homelessness Commission. The team spends nearly every day of the work week going into Nashville’s encampments all around town, as far as the outskirts of Antioch and touching Rutherford County. The team checks in on homeless campers, offering sunscreen, water, blankets and bus passes. They attempt to record information about the campers and what is keeping them from accessing permanent housing, then work to connect them with the appropriate resources.
“If it’s a new camp, our goal is to really get in there, build the trust and see what’s needed, to see if they’re linked to any resources,” Jenkins explains. “If it’s a camp we’re already working with, the whole goal is always housing, whether it’s with us or other resources.”
Judy Tackett, interim director of the Metro Homelessness Commission, says, “We see our role as building relationships with all partners from other Metro Depart- ments to community residents to businesses.”
Jenkins echoes the importance of relationship building. He defines his job success as, “Once you’ve built the trust and relationship, and they’re OK giving you a call and saying, ‘Hey I need this.’”
Besuden adds, “I love being able to meet people and walk alongside people. It just feels like when you see someone and they would like to be in an apartment, anything you can do to help, why wouldn’t you? It just feels natural and right to do.”
Those living in the campsites vary from young adult to retirement age. The stories of how someone ends up living in a tent in Nashville are varied: an injury forced a construction worker off the job; a drug addict is no longer welcome at his parents’ home; a man’s income can’t afford an apartment in Nashville. NOTE finds many of the campers feel more comfortable sleeping in a tent than staying at the city’s mission, or those who have pets are banned from taking them into shelters and camp instead.
“I kind of see myself in some of the people we assist,” Parker, a Nashville native, says. “Some of us are one or two paychecks away from being homeless. If I wasn’t budgeting my money correctly, I could be there.”
The team members serve as liaisons between those they meet in the encampments and the city’s housing navigators and nonprofits.
They admit Nashville’s lack of affordable housing can be “frustrating,” but they use as many routes as possible to connect people with housing providers.
“We worked with a woman who had been camping for several years. She had fallen through the cracks (and) had filled out several (housing) applications over time,” Besuden says.
“We were able to connect the dots for her. We were able to work with Urban Housing Solutions to get her into a house.” NOTE credits strong partnerships with Mental Health CoOp, the VA, Open Table Nashville, Park Center and MDHA for helping them assist people experiencing homelessness. This summer, the outreach team is in need of supplies to hand out to those living in the campsites, including water, sunscreen, insect repellent, T-shirts, socks, hats and blankets. NOTE members are willing to pick up donations.
Contact Besuden at Sally.Besuden@nashville.gov for more information about donations.
Photo: Sally Besuden, Troy Jenkins and Joseph Parker are members of the Nashville Outreach Team for Encampments. Credit: Amelia Ferrell Knisely