On the muggy morning of July 3, 30 homeless Tent City residents and more than a dozen church volunteers took to an Antioch hillside for moving day. The campsite was shut down due to codes violations. Cigarette butts were scraped out of the dirt. Teams of two folded tents. One epic pile of trash was burned.
Moving days are always hectic. The plus side is most come with a final destination. This one ended with a to-be-continued: There was no place to move the group.
Doug Sanders, a homeless outreach worker and minister, took many of them to the basement of his church, Otter Creek Church of Christ in Brentwood, and offered some reassurance. Representatives from the mayor’s office, Chamber of Commerce and the Metro Homelessness Commission had agreed to come together over the next 90 days to start discussing an upgraded replacement of Tent City tentatively called “The Village.”
Three months later, that idea is still in its infancy. Sanders is encouraged by some positive response from the city.
“I’m very hopeful,” he says.
Still, the process is going slower than supporters would like. They’d hoped to have a first phase ready to go before winter.
Sanders says during the city’s recent homeless count he spotted many individuals who would make good candidates for The Village, but are instead camping or living on the street.
The original Tent City site along the Cumberland River flooded in May. Even before the flood, Sanders envisioned retiring Tent City for a new, transitional housing site with 65 one-room shelters that look like storage sheds rather than tents, and that offers ground rules instead of lawlessness.
“We want The Village to be different,” Sanders says. “We hope to acclimate people to be re-engaged into a broad-based community.”
If built, The Village — which is a working moniker — will house residents for six to nine months. They will be required to work toward permanent housing. Sanders says anyone who wants to roll in, drink for a few days and move on, won’t be welcome.
Sanders estimates it will cost $1.5 million to build, and he wants to raise all the money with private donations. He’d like to get a network of churches to sponsor each shed, providing financial support for the structure, which he considers spiritual support for tenants.
Dignity Village, in Portland, Ore., is the model. In 2001, that city agreed to allow a transitional housing site on an unused parcel of public land seven miles from downtown. It has sheds, electricity, bathrooms and kitchen facilities. And it is financed with private donations.
Sanders would like to find a piece of land closer than seven miles from downtown, since that is where most homeless services are. He has his eye on one potential location.
Inner City Ministry, located off Hermitage Avenue, neighbors the old Tent City site and was also flooded in May. Buck Dozier chairs Inner City Ministry’s Board of Directors.
“I’m open to negotiations on that property,” Dozier says. The agency has already moved their offices, and they’re interested in a larger piece of land away from the river.
The road ahead
That the Inner City Ministry property is in a flood plain could be the first hurdle to building a new, permanent encampment there. In addition, Metro Codes Department, and ultimately Metro Council, would have to waive codes restrictions for the site.
Howard Gentry has coordinated meetings between Sanders and the city. He’s CEO of the Nashville Chamber Public Benefit Foundation and a Metro Homelessness Commission member. Back in July, Gentry addressed a commission meeting, saying conversations had begun. His message today remains the same.
“We are making progress,” he says.
The Village is not a Metro Homelessness Commission project. The commission’s focus is on addressing the shortage of permanent affordable housing.
After the flood, the commission helped free up 70 Section 8 vouchers for Tent City residents. That was significant. Right now, the waiting list is 600 deep. So far, according to the Metro housing department, 37 of the 70 applications have been approved and 12 have been put to use. Even those approved for vouchers typically wait two to three months before keys are handed over. That’s where transitional housing comes in.
It’s the middle ground between homelessness and a permanent place. Most of the existing transitional housing in Nashville targets specific populations — for instance, ex-offenders, the mentally ill and victims of domestic violence.
The Village, as it’s drawn theoretically, would be open to any homeless adults, including couples and those with pets. Individuals struggling with alcoholism who don’t want to go to rehab could also find housing help.
The idea makes Rusty Lawrence a little nervous. Lawrence is executive director of Urban Housing Solutions, a nonprofit that maintains 750 units of affordable housing. He’s housed many former Tent City residents and says it’s important to have a place to live. But he’s seen those struggling with alcoholism getting into frequent fights and acting in ways that often lead to eviction.
The beauty of a transitional housing program with a rehab component, he says, is that it usually leads to stability.
“There’s a programmatic structure there,” Lawrence says. “You start out one person and come out a different person.”
Sanders hasn’t decided what the rules regarding drinking will be for the Village concept. But his mission is to give shelter to homeless people who are serious about getting off the street and may not have anywhere else to go. Some place with community, walls and a door that’s not a zipper.