Despite hot weather’s hold on fall, the cold weather months have officially arrived for our neighbors living on the streets, as well as for the support organizations, police, volunteers and the Metropolitan Homelessness Commission that coordinates the city’s response to the wintertime challenges faced by people experiencing homelessness.
During this time of year, the rest of us often take our central heat, fireplaces, toasty coats, hot chocolate, heavy blankets, and even walls and roofs for granted, but many of our neighbors aren’t so lucky.
Nashville has a big homeless population for a city of its size (estimated more than 2,000), and the challenges of providing adequate clothing, shelter and medical care for homeless Nashvillians is compounded when the winds turn icy, mercury drops and the effectiveness of Metro’s Cold Weather Community Response Plan can mean the difference between life and death.
ALERT TO ACTION
“The cold weather can cause hypothermia and frostbite, and the challenge is to ensure people plan ahead for extreme cold weather situations,” says Judith Tackett, the assistant director of the Metropolitan Homelessness Commission. “Nashville increases its shelter beds significantly during extreme cold weather, which is due to the community partners having created a Cold Weather Community Response Plan. The plan is built on community partners coming together and coordinating their available resources.”
The Cold Weather Community Response plan hinges on an alert system that The Contributor’s readers can follow online at www.coldweathernashville.com, which is also a great place to connect with the Homelessness Commission and their various partners regarding donations and volunteer opportunities.
The alert system features three levels of risk for Nashvillians exposed to winter weather: Level one is a general alert when temperatures dip below freezing. The Commission’s partners like Room In The Inn prepare for arrivals at their winter shelter location, while both of Nashville Rescue Mission’s locations offer extended hours.
At alert level two, Open Table Nashville’s street outreach teams are activated to canvas streets in a coordinated effort between Room In The Inn, Nashville Rescue Mission, Oasis Center and Metro police to make sure that homeless Nashvillians get off the streets and into warm places. At level three outreach efforts are intensified, beds are added in existing shelters, and Room In The Inn seeks out additional congregations to handle demand. In case of prolonged dangerous weather, Metro will also open overflow shelter for homeless neighbors to get in out of the cold.
A contractor coordinates with Room In The Inn to monitor weather forecasts via www.weather.com, and to issue the alert level for the following day every evening at 5 p.m. The alert is sent out via text message to all of the response plan’s partners so that efforts against the cold can be precisely coordinated and effectively executed.
PETS ARE ALSO OFFERED WINTER PROTECTION
Many homeless people have pets for some of the same reasons as their housed neighbors: they make great companions. Plus, they offer protection from theft and assault.
Nashville’s cold weather plan enlists the help of the Nashville Humane Society to make sure the furry friends of our homeless neighbors are safe and warm during the winter months.
At alert level two and above, the Nashville Humane Association deploys its mobile “Rover Unit” to the Nashville Rescue Mission’s men’s campus at 639 Lafayette St.
Homeless Nashvillians can keep their best friends warm while the pets receive medical check-ups, medicines and hygiene care.
WITHOUT A HOME OR HEAT, COLD WEATHER BRINGS RISKS
For many of our homeless neighbors, just being aware that dangerous weather is imminent and of the resources that are available is an important part of the battle.
“It's particularly challenging to ensure that people who don't typically seek shelter know how cold and wet it's going to be during severe winter weather, as well as to make sure they know how to access emergency shelter options when cold weather alerts have been issued,” says Bill Friskics-Warren. He’s the director of homelessness services for Neighborhood Health.
“People with substance use disorders and mental health problems are especially vulnerable, as they might not be as oriented to their circumstances and surroundings as others who are experiencing homelessness in Nashville.”
Homeless neighbors – like some of The Contributor’s own vendors – might spend hours outside in weather that many of us might never leave the house in.
“Being outdoors for extended periods of time when it’s not only cold, but also wet and windy, will put vendors of The Contributor at particular risk of hypothermia and frostbite this winter. Clothing, especially clothing that creates a static layer of warm air, keeping the body dry and keeping wind out is absolutely crucial. Hats are especially important,” Friskics-Warren said.
He is an advocate for a “right to shelter law.”
He explained that in December 1979 the New York State Supreme Court ordered both the city and state to provide shelter for homeless men in a landmark decision. In 1981 the city and state agreed upon entering a decree to provide shelter and board to all homeless men who met the need standard for welfare or who were homeless "by reason of physical, mental, or social dysfunction." Similar measures have been passed in other cities and states around the nation. “Right to shelter legislation in Nashville would go a long way toward placing the moral and legal obligation for protecting some of our most vulnerable neighbors where it belongs – on the shoulders of those of us who can afford it,” Friskics-Warren said.
HOUSING IS NECESSARY FOR SURVIVAL
Asked what the most important item homeless Nashvillians need to survive the winter, Tackett gave a one word answer: housing.
“We know of people who have housing vouchers (Section 8 or VASH) in hand, but cannot find a landlord who accepts them. We would like to call on landlords to please work with the Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency to accept housing vouchers.
"We also call on congregations that are not yet participating in Room In The Inn’s winter shelter program to please reach out to learn how they can help shelter people during winter nights.
"Together we can all work together to make Nashville’s streets a little warmer this winter.”
HELP YOUR NEIGHBORS THIS WINTER
No matter how hard volunteers work, congregations organize and experts plan, accounting for all of Nashville’s homeless population during the winter season is a job that requires all Nashvillians.
Call the Metro police non-emergency number at 615-862-8600 if you see someone on the streets who is suffering and struggling to stay warm.
The MNPD are already a part of the commission’s cold weather coordination. This winter the police have plans in place to visit known homeless camps and to help locate vulnerable neighbors on the street, and to provide transportation to the many shelters and churches that will be providing warm beds and hot meals.
REACH OUT WITH OUTREACH TRAINING
Donations of clothes and food, and volunteering with one of the commission’s partner organizations are all great ways to go the extra mile for your neighbors this winter. But if you want to work more directly with homeless Nashvillians – and get a first-hand education in the complex problems that contribute to homelessness – sign up for Open Table’s outreach training course.
The upcoming program on Nov. 15 will focus on preventing cold weather deaths and injuries in Nashville this winter. It will be held at Glencliff United Methodist Church, 2901 Glencliff Road. There’s a $10 suggested donation to cover training and materials, but all are welcome regardless of ability to donate. To RSVP or request more information, email email@example.com.