The shelter safety net still has holes. How could a low-barrier shelter fare?

Jan 03 2020
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The shelter safety net still has holes. How could a low-barrier shelter fare?

By: Hannah Herner

Jonnie “Pops” passed away on Dec. 17 after suffering complications from health problems. We’ve left this story intact to show how the system had failed him.


Wherever Dana goes, Jonnie “Pops” goes too, and vice versa. He’s in a wheelchair, and she’s his girlfriend and caregiver. For a couple like them, the options are limited when it comes to shelter in Nashville. The only place that offers shelter for them is the Metro Emergency Shelter, which opens when the temperature drops to 28 degrees or less in the winter months. The rest of the time, they sleep on the street. 

“Without me, who’s going to take care of him? I know all of his needs,” Dana says. “Nobody else knows what he needs but me. They can’t separate us, even if they wanted to.”

 Advocates share examples of people experiencing homelessness shut out of a shelter because they couldn’t bring their belongings or pets in or they missed the deadline to get a bed. There are stories of addicts and those with mental health problems left out in the cold because the shelter systems in place don’t work for them.

It’s stories like these that prompt calls for a low-barrier shelter in Nashville, but what would that look like? And how far away are the existing mainstays — Room In The Inn, Nashville Rescue Mission, Launchpad and the Metro Emergency Shelter? 

In its emergency shelter learning series, The National Alliance to End Homelessness identifies a number of facets to consider a shelter to have “immediate and low-barrier” access. They include:

Shelter is open 24/7

People do not have to line up for a bed each night or leave early in the morning 

No drug and alcohol testing to get in 

No criminal background checks to get in 

Allowing people, pets and possessions  

Do not require service participation to stay in shelter 

Serving households of any configuration including couples without children, persons identifying as LGBT, two-parent households, mothers with teen boys

Serving people using substances and/or with mental illness, regardless of treatment compliance


Current state of affairs

Launchpad, a rotating-location shelter for youth ages 18 to 24, is the only area organization that describes its shelter service as low-barrier. It doesn’t separate by gender, which allows all couples while also allowing gender nonbinary folks to feel more comfortable.

Rose Marie Pink, board president of Launchpad, says: “It’s hard. Other shelters have been running for a very long time, and they have models that are based on separating people by gender or by sex in inflexible ways, and they don’t really have a way to deal with nuance in that.”

Both Launchpad and Room In The Inn — which buses groups of people to sleep at congregations around the city — depend on the generosity of churches. This means folks seeking shelter must arrive and leave at a certain time and cannot bring their pets. In the earlier days of RITI, there were congregations who accepted couples, but there aren’t anymore. The number of congregations willing to host women has also decreased over the years — and sometimes the beds that would be reserved for single women go to a family if the need arises. 

“We used to have many more congregations that took couples, and we were able to do that,” says Rachel Hester, executive director of Room In The Inn. “Couples are complicated and while we did that for many years, there were issues of domestic violence, there were issues of intimacy that happened. We had a lot of single individuals complain. There probably does need to be a couples shelter. Unfortunately I don’t know that Room In The Inn is that appropriate place.”

While there is scheduled draw times for beds and scheduled bus pickups at RITI, there is flexibility for those who work during those times — they can call in and ask for a draw or arrange to be in a church close to their place of work. Launchpad does its reservations online and its locations are accessible via bus routes. 

In an effort to lower barriers, Nashville Rescue Mission is letting dogs in the building to sleep in a crate next to their owners for the first time this year. The organization has also chosen to let in previously banned folks during the winter season and only a small number of known violent offenders aren’t allowed in. 

What won’t be changing is the requirement to spend an hour in a religious service to get a bed — though those who work at that particular hour can get out of it. 

“That is who we are, that’s what we’re about,” says Glenn Cranfield, president and CEO of Nashville Rescue Mission. “To change that would be to try to change our identity, who we are and our purpose for being. We’re not changing that.”

To utilize the Metro Emergency Shelter, people must be bussed back and forth from the Salvation Army at 631 Dickerson Pike to an old inmate reentry dormitory at 5131 Harding Pike. Belongings can come in, but they are searched and participants are frisked. Pets can stay in kennels, and people can leave as they please, but must arrive by 1 a.m. 

On paper, these organizations may tick certain low-barrier boxes, but there are psychological barriers that are harder to measure. Some folks seeking shelter have an aversion to religious services and church locations based on past experiences. Nashville Rescue Mission hosts hundreds of people a night, and the crowds are unavoidable. Local advocates have brought up many times that the former jail location for the Metro Emergency Shelter this year keeps some from wanting to take shelter there. In the past, community centers have been used for this type of shelter instead. Past traumas can cause a person to choose to take their chances outside. 

Pedro L., a Contributor vendor who has stayed at Nashville Rescue Mission most nights for the last seven months, says some barriers are needed, especially when it comes to drug and alcohol use. He says those under the influence are more likely to start a fight, and staying at Nashville Rescue Mission with hundreds of other men, he has fear for his safety. 

“The only thing that upsets me is people tend to drink, and they don’t test them,” he says. “They should do an alcohol breath test on them because you got a lot of people that fight, they’re not on their medicine.”


Low- barrier shelters past 

Lisa Cook, founder of Sacred Sparks Ministry, ran a series of small low-barrier shelters in Madison and Brentwood since she was ordained in 2014. She let couples, pets and belongings stay without screening. 

“I called it radical hospitality,” Cook says. “I didn’t care who you were, or who you were with. If it was cold, you need to come inside.”

For the first time, she won’t be running a shelter this year. She made the difficult decision to focus her attention on outreach for those staying outside instead. 

In October, when she found out that the city wasn’t doing shelters, she scrambled to set up locations. Then, the plans turned the other way, and Mayor John Cooper announced that the shelters would be fully funded. Still, Cook was skeptical because details of the plan did not come out for more than 20 days — and the location didn’t help. 

“I know that they’re not going to take advantage of that kind of shelter, so I had to work under the assumption that there would be more people choosing to stay outside this year,” Cook says. “It’s almost like a cost benefit analysis. I could have opened the shelter, but it wouldn’t even touch the need, and I would be using up my time and resources for 30 people when I could be touching 30 people a day doing outreach.”

In opening her own low-barrier shelters, Cook took a page from Open Table Nashville, who had to make the same difficult decision to stop hosting shelters in 2014. When Open Table started in 2010, some of the co-founders were already running small, low-barrier shelters for people who couldn’t or wouldn’t go into Room In The Inn or Nashville Rescue Mission. When canvassing the city on the coldest nights, co-founder Lindsey Krinks, along with a team of volunteers, met people experiencing homelessness in need of a solution.

“They said ‘I’d rather freeze to death that go in the shelter,’ and we said, ‘What if we had another place you could come?’ and they said, ‘OK we’ll try it.’ We had built trust with them, and that trust is a very important and fragile thing,” Krinks says. “They trusted us enough to give it a try.”

Running those shelters took time away from canvassing, and it started to become overwhelming, Krinks says. Then, in 2013 a man named Jimmy froze to death on the steps of an East Nashville church. This very public death marked a turn of the tide. Krinks said she and a very small team of staff came to the conclusion that the private sector alone can’t fill this need — it’s too great. They needed help from the public sector to give winter shelter to those who were falling through the holes in the existing shelters’ service.  


Who should do it?  

Krinks was part of the group that marched a casket from the downtown library to the site of the Metro Homelessness Commission meeting, urging the local government to get involved.

Cold Weather Plan meetings started in the summer of 2014, and the city implemented a cold weather plan with emergency shelters in 2016.

Room In The Inn is built on the idea that one person can step up to fill a need in a community. It was founded in 1985 by Father Charles Strobel, who opened up his parish to people seeking shelter in the church parking lot. The organization has grown to include 200 congregations and gives 30,000 beds a winter season. Opening up a shelter is not Metro’s core competency, Hester says. 

“When the city steps in, I see them as the cavalry,” she says. “We’ve lived through ice storms, polar vortexes, power outages. That is when I think it’s an absolute necessity for them to step in. And they ought to be engaged and understand what’s going on in our community. I don’t see them opening up a shelter that’s going to be everything to everyone.”

Krinks and Cook agree that the answer is smaller, geographically dispersed shelters. They just can’t shoulder that along with the outreach they’ve made their bread and butter.

“Development is pushing people out of the city...We’re seeing more and more people move out to places like Madison, Rivergate, Bellevue, Antioch, and all these satellite locations. They can’t get back and forth to [the Nashville Rescue Mission] and when they do come downtown, they’re criminalized.” Krinks says. “You can’t cram 1,000 people into a two-block area around The Mission and Room In The Inn and expect it to go well.”

Cook added, “Last year I decided not to do shelters and do outreach like I’m doing this year and Metro [Homelessness Commission] reached out to me and asked me to open overflow because there were too many people at their shelter. So they need to recognize that they need us at the table, and it has to be a mixture of private and government work being done, because they’re just not able to do what needs to be done.”

Demand is not decreasing in the way homeless service providers would hope, and for those experiencing homelessness in these cold temperatures, ‘there’s always next year’ is not guaranteed. 

“We have to get this settled before next year,” Cook says. “We have already screwed this year up. If we screw next year up, we are a ridiculous city. We can do better.” 

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