Why you should care
Sometimes it’s the eye of the storm where solutions are found.
After working a decade in construction, Stanley Powell was hit by a hernia that left him with a gutted stomach and little else. A costly two-month hospital stay stranded him in Nashville, an hour’s drive from his hometown of Pulaski and apartment there — which he had to give up. Left with no real options, he says he found refuge in a Nashville church, which offered tent space and gave him a micro-home. “Better than being stuck on the streets somewhere. It’s a safe place to be,” the 55-year-old says from his yellow plot about the size of an outhouse.
In a city where 2,365 residents were counted homeless in January of 2016, the 30 or so of them housed in this church backyard is an innovative, albeit small, step to solving the problem — one that has ballooned at the exact moment Nashville is experiencing booming prosperity.
Homelessness rose 9.8 percent between 2015 and 2016, and two out of five homeless individuals are chronically so — the worst of any major city in the U.S.
What’s particularly sobering from that assessment, which came from city data released in December as part of the Hunger and Homelessness Survey conducted by the United States Conference of Mayors, is that just three years ago the area’s anti-homelessness effort “How’s Nashville” was being called by some as “a model for other cities.”
Nationally, the numbers show a trend of homelessness rising in states that also have seen large swings in economic fortune — and, more specifically, those that seem to have benefitted from industry growth typically correlated with a rise in property values. In Nashville, the average rent for a one-bedroom unit has risen from $930 a month two years ago to more than $1,200 a month, according to rentjungle.com. Other cities with higher spikes in homelessness also saw upticks in rental costs, including Los Angeles, which saw a 10.8 percent rise in homelessness (and rent increases that, over time, went from around $1,900 to $2,300) as well as Austin, Texas, with the nation’s highest increase of 16.7 percent (leading to rent bumps from about $1,090 to nearly $1,300).
As they languish on Section 8 wait lists that last months or, sometimes, years, most eyes are glued to the old Westerns playing on the screen.
Yet, surprisingly, that data may be a good sign — one of greater awareness about the issue, argues Judith Tackett, acting director of the Nashville Metropolitan Homelessness Commission. Many of those homeless people were there before the assessment but weren’t counted in previous point-in-time homeless counts because of a lack of organization and volunteers. Now Nashville is better at finding faces lost in the crowd, homeless advocates contend. Meanwhile, the city has partnered with the 100,000 Homes Campaign and the nonprofit Built for Zero to better collect data and track progress toward their goals of ending veteran and chronic homelessness by 2025. They’ve had some success: The same aforementioned national report shows the veteran population has recently decreased. Meanwhile, housing for the chronically homeless has increased from 19 homes a month to 55 since the “How’s Nashville” campaign began in 2013, according to the mayor’s office. “It’s about getting somebody stabilized so they can make good decisions for themselves,” says Tackett. “In the end, that’s going to pay off economically.”
Back at Green Street Church, Powell’s neighbor approaches him, holding up two suits and asks, “Which one should I wear for my job interview?” Across their makeshift campground, a small crowd has huddled under the communal food tent where a benefactor recently donated a television. As they languish on Section 8 wait lists that last months or sometimes years, most eyes are glued to the old Westerns playing on the screen. One woman breaks out into a hopeful worship song. “I’m running out of time,” Powell says. “I’d just like to have a place to call my own, and be peaceful.”
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