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What is going on at Metro Nashville’s homeless division?


What is going on at Metro Nashville’s homeless division?

Mar 27, 2023 | 6:01 am ET
By Adam Friedman
What is going on at Metro Nashville’s homeless division?
Angie and Calico at the homeless camp near the Gerst House in East Nashville. This camp was closed down by Metro.

Over the last year, Nashville has sharply changed its direction in dealing with the city’s unhoused population, leading to pushback and concerns from several local homeless services providers previously at the forefront of tackling the problem. 

The new approach of Metro Homeless Impact Division, or MHID, is to close longtime encampments, like those at the Jefferson Street Bridge and Brookmeade and Wentworth-Caldwell parks, while providing temporary and permanent housing when they can — but not always to great success.

The plan came after loud complaints from community groups, like Reclaim Brookmeade, and as Nashville Mayor John Cooper geared up for reelection. 

Cooper brought in highly-credentialed outside consultant Stacy Horn Koch last year and helped direct $50 million in federal funds to address the problem. But by turning homelessness into a potential campaign topic, Cooper turned a complex housing problem into a political fight between several community groups and council members.

Despite these efforts, and to the the surprise of many, Cooper announced he would not seek reelection in January.

Nashville Metro Council Member Erin Evans understands why some homeless service providers are upset, saying MHID’s decisions aren’t always tailored to each case.

Evans serves as a moderating voice on Nashville’s Homeless Planning Council, a Metro Council-formed committee tasked with providing advice to MHID.  

“It is incredibly complicated,” Evans said. “We’re just at a point in Nashville where we have to escalate some of the housing opportunities.”

Two groups, neither happy with the other

Two factions have formed in the debate over dealing with the unhoused. 

On one side is the new regime at MHID that has taken over since the department’s last director, Judith Tackett, left, Koch, and conservative council member Courtney Johnston. On the other side are the services providers, like Open Table Nashville, and liberal council member Ginny Welsch. 

The tension points lie in who qualifies for housing, what is considered permanent housing, the order in which homeless encampments are closed and the spending of the $50 million grant.

The service providers feel “ignored,” saying other groups with less experience but more financial backing receive preferential treatment. 

Additionally, accusations have started to arise, with Welsch claiming MHID director April Calvin tried to have dissenting homeless service providers fired from their day jobs.

Metro Nashville has opened an investigation into Welsch’s allegations.

Calvin declined to comment for this story, with MHID representatives citing ethics complaints as the reason for her denial.

Tensions boiled over with South Nashville encampment closure

All those contentious points came to a head with the closure of Wentworth-Caldwell Park’s homeless encampment earlier this month. 

MHID said they housed roughly 40 individuals living at Wentworth-Caldwell, while homeless service providers said the number was more likely in the single digits, with most ending up at the department’s temporary housing at the Rodeway Inn. 

“There’s a lot of inconsistency and a lack of transparency and honesty about this entire process and its intentions and implications,” said India Pungarcher with Open Table Nashville. 

“We’re not doing anything to prevent homelessness from happening. We’re not doing enough to prevent someone new from experiencing homelessness.”

Koch, Cooper’s homeless consultant, called the closure “necessary”, stating it was a success as Nashville “finally” started to address its chronic homelessness problem.

Chronic homelessness — or someone without housing for over a year — and longtime encampments at various parks around Nashville drive vocal complaints.

“For 10 years, Nashville has not concentrated on chronic homelessness, so the outdoor population has continued to grow,” Koch said. “Nashville has a number that is manageable enough to end over a series of years to get to the point where we can make homelessness rare and brief.”

The causes of homelessness are complex. Nashville’s are partially caused by its red-hot housing market leading to more and more residential developments. Located mere feet from new apartment and condo developments, were homeless encampments at Brookmeade, Wentworth-Caldwell and Jefferson Street are now more noticeable than ever.

There's a lot of inconsistency and a lack of transparency and honesty about this entire process and its intentions and implications.

– India Pungarcher, Open Table Nashville

Both sides acknowledge their bickering is over a relatively small piece of the financial pie and a fraction of what is needed to address the problems. There is only so much they can do, the parties said, without state or federal help. 

Lawmakers and state government have largely stood in the way of Nashville implementing affordable housing solutions, led partially by the influence of the Tennessee Association of Realtors, the largest lobbying group in the state.

What is going on at Metro Nashville’s homeless division?
Open table worker India Pungachar, left, handed out tents and sleeping bags to from right homeless Misty Caudill,
Bobbie Dolan and EdwardRobinson at the Harding Place coin Laundry.

The Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services is one of the only state departments addressing the unhoused in some way, but there are no dedicated state funds specifically for homelessness, a problem occurring in numerous cities across Tennessee. 

Koch said Nashville suffers in its ability to get financial buy-in from the state or federal government when it looks like the community can’t agree on a plan. But Pungarcher said it’s hard for service providers to buy into a plan when it seems like they’re left out of the conversation. 

Evans said both groups have a right to be frustrated by the process, but waiting to see how the current plan plays out might be worth it before a directional shift.

“We’ve allowed nonprofits to carry the burden and be the heavy lifters for a long time,” Evans said. “We were behind, like on so many other issues, because we hadn’t decided to take action. Now we have money and now we’re taking action.”