Nashville’s heat, already present as May has brought on summer-like temps, brings challenges to those living on the streets: lack of cooled shelter, lack of water and prolonged sun exposure.
It’s a common misconception that people experiencing homelessness are more vulnerable in the winter months, but homelessness advocates and outreach workers in Nashville say the summer is typically more dangerous for people sleeping outside.
“In the winter, a lot of organizations and churches are open and that’s fantastic,” said Jessica Thurmond, referring to the hundreds of beds made available through temporary emergency shelter programs each winter in Nashville. Thurmond is the founder and leader of a local homeless outreach backpack program, Lace Up With Love.
She added, “(But) the homeless population is so much more visible during the summer. You can see it in the (Church Street) park – people lined up and laying out. That doesn’t exist during the winter because during the winter we have the emergency shelters they can go to.”
People on the streets – tallied at around 2,400 in Nashville – without regular access to cooled shelter stand at increased risk of hyperthermia or heat stroke. Long exposure to the heat can also alter the way medication flows through someone’s body; antidepressants can prevent the body from sweating or prevent the blood flow to the skin from increasing which increases the likelihood of overheating.
Jeff Moles, community development coordinator at Room In The Inn, said his staff has been trained to watch those coming into the shelter for signs of heat exhaustion, especially those who may have been drinking and have an increased risk of dehydration.
“Our staff is contacting emergency services as needed,” he said.
The shelter and homeless service provider, located on Drexel Street, will provide a daytime cooling shelter, plus continue its free morning shower and laundry services.
Lace Up With Love is in the process of putting together its summer packs, which include ponchos, insect repellent, sunscreen and single serve electrolyte packets to combat dehydration. Thurmond said the organization has one mass distribution planned for each summer month, along with its regular outreach made possible by volunteers.
Oasis Center, which helps at-risk and homeless youth, increases its outreach in the summer to 13- to 24-year-olds. Katie Gonzalez, housing coordinator with Oasis, said they’ll see more teens and young adults on the streets due to fewer shelter beds and teens leaving unsafe situations that they may have been more willing to stay in during the cold months.
“They’re more vulnerable to exploitation because they’re young,” Gonzalez said. “So we’re trying to build relationships and trust very quickly when we’re doing street outreach.
“We’re not just helping people stay alive with necessary food and water, but we can build trust so they will engage with us in case management so we can help them get to a safer situation.”
Located on Charlotte Avenue, Oasis houses an emergency shelter for 13- to 17-year-olds, and a drop-in center for 18- to 24-year-olds with showers, laundry services, food, water, clothing and case managers available.
Metro police will continue its spot checks of regular sleeping places for those experiencing homelessness – mainly parks – as it did in the winter.
“Our job is safety, to provide people with shelter and whatever they need,” Metro Sgt. Rickey Bearden said. Metro officers will offer free transportation to anyone asking to be taken to shelter, according to Bearden, plus offer assistance to any outreach workers in the city and those going into encampments.
The Downtown Public Library, located across from Church Street Park where many people experiencing homelessness sleep and hang out during the day, is one of the few places where people can access AC, use the restroom and get a drink of water without having to buy something.
“We really make an effort to keep our buildings open. Sometimes it’s a life saving measure for people to get out of the heat,” said Liz Coleman, a reference librarian at the downtown branch.
Coleman helps facilitate seasonal meetings for the city’s homeless outreach workers, service providers and Metro police to meet with library staff to discuss how they’ll help the city’s homeless population. Many of those service providers conduct outreach in the library, including Metro Social Services and Mental Health Co-Op.
“Libraries want to help people, but we don’t always have the knowledge or skills for helping people navigate how to get into housing. We have support if people are needing that,” Coleman said.
As organizations across the city prepare for the heat, many are in need of donations: