by Erica Eldridge Nashville Newborn and Family Photographer
When I woke up one Tuesday in January, it was 18 degrees. Ice dangling from the trees. Frost on the ground. And frozen windshield wipers. I turned up the heat, poured myself steaming coffee, took a hot shower and bundled up in hats, gloves, and layers of warmth. People in Nashville who experience homelessness do not have these luxuries. When they woke up that Tuesday, they were cold. Some were in tents, many were without. They were hungry. Some were without gloves. Or socks. Or coats. And when they woke up that Tuesday, many had to worry about where they were going to stay that night.
Homelessness Nationwide Vs Tennessee
There is estimated to be over 500,000 people currently in the US who experience homelessness on any given night. That’s almost as much as my entire Nashville, TN county. (Davidson County has a population of approximately 600,000). According to thrivedc.org, the top 3 cities with the highest rates of homelessness are Washington DC, Tuscon AZ, and Seattle WA. And in many of these cities, the numbers are continuing to grow. In Nashville alone, the last Point in Time Count for people living on the streets was approximately 2,300 on any given night. And depressingly, Tennessee ranks among the worst for number of CHILDREN experiencing homelessness, with almost 30,000 children homeless at some point during the year.
The Criminalization of Homelessness
As this housing crisis rages on, so too does criminalization of the homeless. The criminalization of homelessness refers to measures that prohibit life-sustaining activities such as sleeping/camping, eating, sitting, and/or asking for money/resources in public spaces (nationalhomeless.org). Nashville, like many other large cities in this nation, continues to penalize people who have no other option but to seek out these life-sustaining activities on the street. They are continuously kicked out of places where they have sought refuge, community, and shelter, in spite of the fact that Nashville has a huge shortage of affordable housing and shelters.
On this particular Tuesday in January, I went to see a man named Roger. Roger, like so many others, has been forced by the city police to leave numerous camps – with nowhere to go. Not because they were being disruptive, but for merely existing. Two months ago, Roger was set up in The Cut, an encampment at a major intersection. But this community was made to clear out and given 5 days to clean up the entire site. Let me repeat that for emphasis. Five days to clean up the site.
So not only were these people given no support and no other options of where to go, they were actively forced to participate in unpaid labor without any resources to carry out the task. And this is not a new concept.
Before The Cut, there was Devil’s Playground, where they were forced to abandon as well. But never were any of these encampment occupants given instructions or advice on where they could legally go. They are criminalized. Repeatedly. In some cities, it is even illegal to feed the homeless. Since when does the government regulate who we choose to share food with? Arnold Abbott of Fort Lauderdale, Florida has been cited with a criminal violation three times since the city’s ban on “public food sharing.” He is 90 years old.
Back to Roger. Roger has applied for Section 8 housing, or Section 8 of the Housing Act of 1937, which authorizes the government to assist in rental payments to private landlords on behalf of low-income and homeless individuals and families. But the wait is long. The waiting lists are long everywhere. Nashville has a number of non-profit organizations devoted to providing transitional housing and some even provide rehabilitation for our friends.
What About Shelters?
But many of these shelters, including Safe Haven, Room at the Inn, and Sophia’s Heart are completely full and turn away dozens of neighbors every night. After months of paperwork (and active work by OpenTableNashville.org and involvement of lawyers, which most people living in poverty do not have access to), Roger was finally approved by a landlord for Section 8. But for reasons unknown, the landlord did not submit Roger’s paperwork. And so Roger spends this cold winter, now with record breaking snow fall, outdoors in a tent. For the moment, a gracious park ranger has allowed Roger and several friends to camp on publicly owned land. But the group is unsure how long this will last. I had the privilege of hearing this community’s stories, trials, optimism and sadness. Roger’s friend Carla recounted her trip to Nashville from Florida. She arrived with no home and only flip-flops and shorts. She told me of the kind family who saw her and bought her shoes and a jacket.
The Kindness of Strangers
One common thread: if it weren’t for the kindness of strangers, they would all be dead. This is a group of people who value community and support each other through the darkest of times. Roger and his friends hold hands in solidarity as they speak about their lives. There were hugs and comforting words shared. They cook for each other and share their food and clothes. They all fondly recalled the times their fellow campmate made them “Hobo Stew” – a home trade treat shared with the entire camp. They care more about each other than most people I encounter in my life.
While I was visiting, Roger’s friend Dana* (named changed to protect identity) confided she had no socks. Roger handed her a pair of his. And before sitting down to eat that day, they all held hands in prayer, so thankful for the food and for a place to camp and for life. They have no one else to turn to, and many are victims of abuse and childhood trauma. Given no support system, they have no way to get back on their feet. So where do they go for help?
The government has recognized the problem, of course, but clearly the problem is not being solved. In Nashville, Metro established the Homelessness Commission, with the goal of ending homelessness and educating the public. And How’s Nashville, a community campaign launched by the Homeless Commission, has pledged to end veteran homelessness by 2015 and chronic homelessness by 2016. This campaign is aligned with Zero:2016, a national effort to end homelessness by the end of 2016. Despite these efforts,homelessness continues to rise.
Nashville’s Homeless Problem Is Growing Worse
In fact, Nashville’s homeless population increased by 5 percent in 2015, and Metro officials say they were unable to meet 15 percent of the overall demand for shelter, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ 2015 Report on Hunger and Homelessness. That’s 2,154 people without housing on an average night in 2015 (which doesn’t include parents and children). While the numbers of unhoused citizens rise, the options decline, as they are continuously criminalized and forced to leave so called “unauthorized” encampments, but given no options for a condoned or “authorized” encampment. All of this while the city continues to boom, with hundreds of new projects and buildings underway, tourists pouring into the city, and countless cranes dominating the skies.
“There’s 280 encampments across the city that we know of,” said Ingrid McIntyre of Open Table Nashville. “The fact that they’re constantly at risk of being criminalized, and they don’t have a safe place to stay, is something that we feel really strongly about.”
Nashville’s new mayor, Megan Barry, has announced that Metro will not be issuing citations to the homeless population currently living in the Fort Negley park encampment. This comes after Metro had earlier set a Sept. 15 deadline for homeless campers to move out (right before winter). Yet, Metro Parks is still requiring inhabitants to evacuate by April 15. The Homeless Commission is currently discussing the details surrounding a sanctioned or “authorized” encampment, using other cities’ models as a guide. However, while authorized encampments are obviously needed, they are not the long-term solution.
Last year Seattle Mayor Ed Murray authorized up to three government regulated encampments in Seattle.
Murray has claimed a state of emergency: “we are involved in a homelessness crisis the like that we have not seen since the Great Depression. There is no simple answer.”
Everyone has a right to live. To sleep, eat, sit down, walk, be in public places, use the restroom. And yet this population is harassed or arrested for doing just this. Things that the rest of us do without thinking everyday. They are criminalized for being poor or without housing. The only way we end this is to stop treating the homeless like criminals and acknowledge this as the social problem that it is.
STOP THE CYCLE. There are steps we can take to help:
1. Contact your Mayor’s Office. If you live in Nashville, contact Erik Cole, Director, Mayor’s Office of Economic Opportunity and Empowerment: firstname.lastname@example.org
2. Donate to shelters and organizations:
4. Directly purchase necessities for Nashville’s homeless community through this amazon wish list.
5. Education is key. SHARE THIS ARTICLE!!!!!
6. Leave a comment below so we can start a dialogue.