It’s been a year since the city officially put an end to people experiencing homelessness setting up tents and sleeping in the woods around Fort Negley — but little has changed in the way of finding those people permanent housing. Though more than 20 people experiencing homelessness were living in the area in the months before the city decided to push them out, less than a dozen remained when the city started providing services to get people on the property into housing. When that happened, Samuel Lester with Open Table Nashville, a nonprofit dedicated to ending cycles of poverty and homelessness, worked with people at Fort Negley and visited regularly to check up on their wellbeing. One man living at the encampment, Billy, was someone Lester had been a friend to for some time before Mayor Megan Barry’s office made the announcement to clear the camp. (It’s worth noting this process started happening under former Mayor Karl Dean, but largely happened on Barry’s watch.) To Barry’s credit, the city did work to find the remaining campers temporary solutions at places like Green Street Ministries, which has a small, sanctioned encampment on its property. But it didn’t work for everyone living on the property.
“The first time I met Billy, he was carrying a rope looking for a tree to hang himself,” Lester says. “When we meet people struggling in homelessness, we get only a snapshot of what they are going through. We don’t see the whirlwind spiral constantly pushing them down. We don’t see how the day-to-day grind wears on them, or how their past has led them to their current moment.”
When Billy, who’d suffered a traumatic childhood, was living at Fort Negley, it may not have been an ideal living situation — encampments rarely are — but Lester points out that it was a place Billy felt more comfortable going.
Encampments often serve as more stable living situations for people who can’t fit into a traditional shelter model. As Lester points out, people experiencing homelessness avoid shelters for pretty valid reasons: “1) The hours make it difficult for people to get a bed and work a job that goes to 5 p.m. or beyond, and if you work far from the mission, it costs you money and time to get there; 2) Couples and people with pets cannot stay together at shelters; 3) Many people report that shelters are loud, dangerous and destabilizing; 4) People experiencing mental problems feel especially uncomfortable; 5) People with any significant number of possessions must leave them unguarded while at the mission, and they often have things stolen while there.”
Lester says in the year he worked with him, Billy had lost his identification several times, was robbed and beaten up as well and rarely had enough minutes on his phone for Lester to contact him.
“Not only is there no safe place to sleep, there is no safe place to keep belongings if you don’t stay in an established camp,” Lester points out.
While living at Fort Negley, at least Lester could find Billy more regularly. This is the case with many people experiencing homelessness working with outreach workers.
“Billy cycled through depression after depression, and struggled with alcohol, but getting mental health care and substance abuse treatment was not easy,” Lester says. “Nor was it sufficient when he would just return to the street and to his depression.”
Before and after living at Fort Negley, Billy was cited and arrested over and over for minor misdemeanors like criminal trespassing and for public intoxication. He was forced out of camps and sleep spots by police repeatedly. At least a half dozen citations for criminal trespassing were handed out at Fort Negley before the encampment was ultimately cleared.
“[In May], police have also been citing people for smoking in library park — really, an attempt to drive them away from one of the few safe spaces downtown,” Lester says. “In the meantime, unpayable fines build up. ... Petty arrests and fines only make it more difficult to get out of poverty and to be accepted for housing.”
When the city cleared the camps, the intention was to keep intact the history around the area so that people could visit the fort and learn about what happened there in the past. A judge, John Overton, first owned the 55 acres where Fort Negley sits in the early 1800s.
According to a historical account, “Overton’s tract, which featured a rocky prominence known locally as ‘Saint Cloud Hill,’ remained undeveloped until the Civil War when the Union Army occupied Nashville in 1862 and seized the land to fortify the city.”
Aside from the dearth of affordable housing and lack of a place for people experiencing homelessness to exist, more recently, news broke that developers have proposed building a large housing and retail complex on a parcel of acreage near Fort Negley.
A blog written by the Cultural Landscape Foundation, an organization that “educates and engages the public to make our shared landscape heritage more visible, identify its value and empower its stewards,” calls the development a threat.
“In January 2017 the Nashville Mayor's office released an RFQ for the development of the 18.2-acre Greer Stadium property, which is a part of Fort Negley Park,” the blog reads. “The RFQ calls for a 21-acre site, which means three acres of parkland will be confiscated, and stipulates plans should include residential, retail and commercial space. It’s unclear what the scale and mass of the new development would be, though park advocates have raised concerns about increased vehicular traffic and impacts on significant view sheds, along with damage to archaeological and cultural artifacts. Some Negley Park supporters are advocating for the Greer Stadium complex to be returned to park use, which would be consistent with the Nashville Park Board’s original intent expressed in 1928 when the Overton property was purchased: ‘to make of the land a public park.’”
Historians are decrying the retail and residential space because the property was never meant to be anything but a park. Ironically, this could mean there’d be housing on the property, but based on the description of the property, it doesn’t seem likely it’ll fit in the affordable housing category.
Meanwhile, a statistic recently pushed out by housing advocates in the city says that it would take working three minimum wage jobs to afford a $750 one-bedroom apartment in Nashville. And here’s the kicker: The average one-bedroom apartment in the city costs $1,236.
“Today, rising rents, lack of affordable housing, combined with stagnant incomes especially for low-wage earners, mean that bills higher than earnings have probably replaced unemployment as a cause,” Lester says.
In short, even those working more than full time can’t afford to find — but more importantly, sustain — housing. In the past year, Barry has pushed a record $10 million into the Barnes Fund for Affordable Housing and worked toward incentivizing developers to build affordable housing. Her office has outlined a need for more than 31,000 affordable housing units by 2025, but the issue is that a sufficient solution for those struggling now hasn’t quite been identified. Advocates also question exactly what affordable housing could mean: In many cases those building affordable housing target income groups that fall far above those struggling the most. In a press release issued at the time Fort Negley was shut down, Barry insisted clearing the camp was in the best interest of everyone involved, and that it was an effort to work toward a solution.
“We believe that safe, alternative solutions have been identified to address the needs of the population that has been identified as living at Fort Negley and that it is time to begin the process of making those transitions,” Barry wrote. “Metro has spoken with individuals at the encampment to understand their specific needs, such as safe places for their pets during the transition, and have worked with Metro departments and local nonprofits to make such accommodations. While some activists have issued demands for Metro to open up alternative park land for sanctioned camps, we do not believe that is the proper course of action for a variety of legal and public safety reasons and that reasonable accommodations have been made to remove barriers to relocation for those currently living in the park.”
In Billy’s case, he didn’t live to get into housing, and he wasn’t able to work with the city to meet his needs. Shortly after the encampment at Fort Negley was cleared, he crossed Dickerson Pike at night in the rain to get back to another camp and was hit by a car.
“Rather than just having steel pins in his legs, replaced hips or persistent painful back problems (as happens to many of our friends on the streets), after six days in a coma, he was taken off life support,” Lester says.
At the time, while Billy had still been living in an encampment, Lester had finally succeeded in helping Billy secure a voucher for housing. And as with the end goal for affordable housing solutions, it seems the success came a little too late.
Photos by Samuel Lester and John Partipilo.