Homeless advocates attempt to improve uneasy relationship with city's criminal justice system

Sunday, March 13, 2011 at 11:05pm
Jude Ferrara/SouthComm 

Speaking before the Metro Homelessness Commission during a hearing in March 2009, Steve Reiter talked about a trend he’d noticed of social profiling by Metro police against the city’s homeless population. With pressure on police from downtown residents and property owners who were now looking out their windows to discover that homeless people actually exist and tend to congregate in open public spaces, Reiter believed he saw a pattern of police singling out the homeless on sometimes-murky quality-of-life violations — such as public intoxication or loitering. Amid the influx of urban dwellers spurred by the building of more and more downtown condos, tensions were mounting. 

It had become, in his mind, the Metro Nashville Police Department’s attempt to shoo the homeless away from areas such as Riverfront Park and Church Street Park by increasing their presence, writing more citations, making more arrests and even adding narrative to citations after the fact to further justify the encounters. It appears he was right: From 2004 to 2009, arrest data show an approximately 500 percent increase in arrests for obstructing a passageway, with homeless people accounting for between 60 and 81 percent of them. Public intoxication arrests more than doubled during that period. 

Reiter, an advocate for the homeless, thought police were pushing the limits of civil rights laws, and he believed he could make a legal case of it. 

But in response, the Homelessness Commission created the Committee on Police/Homeless Issues as an effort to bring together players from the criminal justice system, the homeless community and outreach workers. The committee sought to open discussion on a burgeoning problem: Criminalizing homelessness to the point where police officers on the street, and then often the jails themselves, had become the primary clearinghouses for Nashville’s troubled indigents. Unusually, it was the criminal justice system providing social services to the city’s most vulnerable citizens. 

“In some ways, it’s an impossible task if we make the police the frontline social workers in our city,” said Fr. Charles Strobel, committee chairman, recognizing the need to address larger issues of affordable housing and adequate social-services resources. 

Two years after the committee was created, on Friday, March 4, its members reported to the Homelessness Commission that the criminal justice system had become the “default manager” of downtown’s “homeless problem,” that all involved in the issue must keep an open dialogue, and that all homeless people downtown should not be “lumped” together into one problem category. 

The committee recommended adopting the “spirit” of an American Bar Association recommendation to repeal certain quality-of-life ordinances affecting the non-criminal homeless population. And it officially endorsed the practice of police officers taking those charged with public intoxication to the Room In the Inn’s Guest House instead of jail. 

What it did not do was reach consensus on a single best-practice model to move forward but instead offered up the notion that Metro should create its own tailored combination of initiatives to address the rift between the homeless population and the criminal justice system. 

Presented with that, the Homelessness Commission elected to form another committee to further examine the ABA recommendations and bring its own set of offerings in the future — and thus, it kicked the can right on down the road. 

Meanwhile, Metro police have gone rogue on the commission: On Jan. 1, the department moved forward with a program that “flags” homeless chronic offenders, giving them the maximum possible sentences upon conviction with the hope they’ll either receive needed assessment in jail or be held long enough for social services agencies to step in. Although this was a controversial topic in the committee’s discussions, the police proceeded without buy-in from the homeless or social-services sets. 

It would seem, aside from continued dialogue on police and homeless interaction (something both sides applaud), the committee — and by proxy the commission — has spent two years returning to the start. And there is little to show but a renewed irritation between police and the city’s homeless constituents. 


Included in a set of five systemic improvements listed in the committee’s report were a “single point of entry” model providing homeless persons one location to be assessed and receive social-service referrals; a homeless court similar to the drug and mental health courts that are already operational; a court diversion program that offers the homeless facing minor criminal charges a chance to participate in intensive treatment programs at Room In the Inn rather than face extended jail time; and the Guest House Services program that’s been in place since 1991.  

But the proposed change labeled in the committee’s report as “enhanced sentencing” has caused the latest squabble between the homeless and the police. 

Deputy Chief Damian Huggins said the chronic offender program simply uses maximum sentences already in place and had been in the works for more than a year before it took effect on Jan. 1. 

The initiative allows police officers to tag those individuals with 17 or more convictions in a 12-month timeframe. When officers on the street run the names of individuals who are chronic offenders, they’re alerted to those who qualify. And when officers flag an arrestee as a chronic offender, a notation on the jail docket signals prosecutors to hold that person as long as legally possible rather than send him back on the street. 

“[The chronic offender program] holds them accountable for their own actions but puts them in a place where the resources are notified,” said Huggins, who until last October served on the police/homeless committee as the commander of the Central Precinct. Cmdr. Jason Reinbold now serves in that role. 

Huggins said the technology could also be used to notify officers of any social services available for chronic offenders, such as housing vouchers through the Veterans’ Administration that might be applicable. So far this year, four such offenders have been connected with housing, he said. 

“It’s beyond any criminal application,” Huggins said. “It’s a public service application.” 

Jeff Blum, mental health coordinator with the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office, noted a recent case in which a flagged person who was in housing and working with a case manager was going to be held for the maximum sentence. Blum discussed the case with the District Attorney’s Office, and the “flag” was removed. That led to an understanding among the parties that maximum sentencing isn’t mandatory but discretionary based on the circumstances involved. 

But Reiter said labeling someone as a chronic offender prior to an initial court appearance is “problematic” because only the facts and circumstances surrounding a violation should be relevant, and officers flagging offenders is “sending a message to the judge that you should not be sending, because everybody has the presumption of innocence.” 

Clifton Harris is the director of The Key Alliance, which is the Homelessness Commission’s fundraising arm, and he coordinates permanent housing for some of the city’s neediest. 

“You can’t arrest your way out of [the homelessness problem], and going through the court system is not the way to get out of it, either,” Harris said. 

The committee never reached consensus about implementing the chronic-offender program. In fact, committee members weren’t notified of the decision to go ahead with the program, and — according to the report — “many of them expressed disappointment … given the lack of consensus regarding the propriety of the program.” 

Huggins maintained that members were aware of the initiative as well as the plans to put it into effect on Jan. 1, following the change of command in the Central Precinct last fall. But Erik Cole, chairman of the Homelessness Commission and a Metro Council member, said the commission found out at its January meeting that the program had been put in place. 

“The committee tried to sort out exactly how that was going on — who had authorized it and all that — and we’re going to continue that dialogue in the hope of finding a middle ground that works for all parties,” Cole said. 

The controversial program isn’t the only source of conflict among those involved. 

Over the course of the last few meetings of police and homeless advocates, the conversation turned to one of the ABA’s recommendations opposing those federal, state and local quality-of-life laws and policies that appear to punish otherwise non-criminal homeless people trying to exist in public places when there are no other places to go. 

In what would appear to be jaw-dropping numbers, the report outlines Nashville arrest data from 2004 to 2009 provided by the Criminal Justice Planning Department regarding disorderly conduct, littering, indecent exposure, obstructing a passageway, public indecency, public intoxication and criminal trespass: There has been an approximately 500 percent increase in arrests for obstructing a passageway, with homeless people making up anywhere from 60 percent to 81 percent of those arrested. Physical arrests for public intoxication, according to data in the report, rose from 2,029 in 2004 to 5,031 in 2009, with the percentage of homeless defendants arrested showing a steady increase. 

The report states that in 2004, the percentage of arrests for all seven offenses involving homeless people rose from 36 percent to 50 percent, consistently increasing across each offense except disorderly conduct, which reportedly dropped by 3 percent.

Asked about the numbers in the report, police told The City Paper they reflect a philosophical change that former Chief Ronal Serpas  brought to the department that pushed for increases in traffic stops and other “self-initiated activity,” as Huggins called it. 

“We were, as an agency, making more arrests as a whole,” Reinbold said. “… If you look at our — you already know this — traffic stops [were] out of the roof from ’04, unrelated to these quality-of-life concerns.”

Reinbold said those numbers were used to suggest that police were targeting the homeless “when the target was the criminal element, anyone in the whole county.”


Downtown in the Central Precinct, where the tension between police and the homeless is by far the greatest, Huggins said the department “had to show a presence.” He pointed to an increase in special events downtown, as well as requests from resident groups for a police response to activity by the homeless in areas around the state Capitol and the public parks. He acknowledged last summer’s increase in police presence at Church Street Park — known as an area frequented by homeless individuals — came after the downtown group Nashville Urban Residents Association raised concerns about problems such as public urination and intoxication. 

Reinbold said that initiative has now spread to a greater downtown area, though the department has stopped pulling officers from other precincts to help. 

“We’re going to hold people accountable,” Reinbold said. “It has no bearing on social status, racial status [etc.] … . Those factors are out the window.”

Hershell Warren, Mayor Karl Dean’s representative on the Homelessness Commission, balked at the vote to endorse the ABA recommendations. He said relaxing laws and policies for low-level violations by the less-fortunate without further study first would’ve been the wrong move for the city. 

The commission ended up voting to adopt the “spirit” of the recommendations and further evaluate how such a step would affect Nashville. 

The commission did vote, however, to approve the police/homeless committee’s recommendation to endorse the practice of police officers transporting homeless people arrested for public intoxication to the Room In the Inn’s Guest House as an alternative to jail — something that police and Room In the Inn have partnered on for the last two decades but Strobel believes had fallen off in the past year. 

“You see in the report there’s a general consensus that we all recognize we don’t have enough resources engaged in this problem,” Cole said. “And unfortunately police are the first point of contact … with homeless individuals.”

Cole said the next incarnation of the committee would specifically review the ABA recommendation to see how it could be implemented in Nashville, as well as ordinances such as the anti-panhandling legislation that passed a couple years ago and criminalizes begging. Any recommendations for action by the committee, however, will face the reality of finite and very limited resources at the city’s disposal. 

“At the end of the day, this stuff should all result in either federal grant applications or trying to turn over rocks to find funding,” Cole said.

They’ll also face the police department’s reluctance to change their posture toward homeless low-level offenders. 

“I think we have a greater focus now,” Reiter, the homeless advocate, said. “I think everybody knows where our various positions are. I understand the police department better. I think they understand our position better.” 

With a growing downtown residential population and concern for the rights of the existing homeless population, Cole said all involved face a ticking clock on a complex issue.

For Strobel, the committee offered a new forum for the homeless community.

“The fact that we call them ‘homeless’ indcates that they have no homes,” he said. “But they also have no voices [in government].”  

20 Comments on this post:

By: richgoose on 3/14/11 at 2:08

I find the homeless as an abomination to this city and particularly downtown. I have developed an empathy for those homeless that sell the newspaper, "The contributor" I consider that as much of a job as anyone else. Some are out there every day rain or shine or cold. I buy several papers a week from various vendors.

By: govskeptic on 3/14/11 at 5:21

The MCC completion will be surrounded by this group so the
public, homeless commission, and police had better strike
somekind of balance in the near future.

By: Moonglow1 on 3/14/11 at 6:08

Moonglow1: expect an increase in the homeless population with Republicans in charge. Everyone should know by now that tax cuts for the 400 billionaires and for corporations that have taken your jobs to China foster homelessness. Next public sector employees will be homeless. It is fine for corporations to have lobbyists represent them but not for teachers to have collective bargaining rights. The Republicans are greedy & ignorant and they want The People dumbed down with religious fanatics & guns. Yes what a society they have created. Not much different than the Taliban.

By: arkay61 on 3/14/11 at 6:21

So, if you are homeless and you go out and get drunk and pass out on the street you get a chauffeur (police officer) to carry you somewhere to sleep it off with no arrest.

Are the tourists and taxpayers going to get that same deal? I'm sure a lot of folks would like that. How are you legally going to charge ANYONE with public intox if give a chosen group a free pass for the same offense? On the upside, if the police threaten to lock you up on a PI charge, just tell them you are homeless and you'll get an automatic (and litteral) get-outta-jail free card. Yep, that'll make downtown nicer.

Arrest numbers have also escalated because the number of homeless has increased and thusly the offenses are becoming more numerous. And more egregious. Public urination and vile cursing tirades toward passersby are becoming so common that are practically downtown trademarks.

By: i.am.a.taxpayer on 3/14/11 at 7:08

Arresting and re-arresting homeless people for public intoxication or simililar charges costs the city a great deal of time and money. It is also pointless because it does NOTHING to help the homeless people and does not deter them from doing the same thing again.
Surely that time and money (plus whatever services will help) could be put to better use by actually doing something that will help them be able to get off the street and live with dignity. For those who think they are somehow "better" than homeless people, under the right circumstances, it could happen to you also.

By: TITAN1 on 3/14/11 at 8:02

Moonglow1, have you ever thought about voting for the individual regardless of the party they represent? I believe there are people who hold office that have good intentions regardless of their party affiliation.

By: livinglively57 on 3/14/11 at 8:23

I've worked downtown for 18 years, lived downtown since 2006. arkay is right....the numbers of homeless downtown have increased significantly (I'd say doubled) in the last 5 years and thus, the number of arrests have increased proportionately.
It is impossible to even go to lunch anymore without being asked for money or to buy a paper. It is a never-ending circle of circumstances that have brought this city to this point...and one that will only be solved by
A) Money
B) More money
As jobs are scarcer, affordable housing practically non-existant, families are scattered, folks expect the govt to "take care of them" and money is no where to be found, budget cuts are expected for services to the "income under the poverty level", and an escalating drug problem (especially as people can't cope)...I expect this to not only continue, but worsen.
The USA culture and society is changing rapidly...this is only a sign of the "growing pains"...as we change, we see things that we never thought we'd see in our lifetime. I do know that every human being is worthy of being treated with dignity but it is hard to do when a homeless person is following you, yelling at you, all the way from Capital Hill back to your office (as happened to me last week).
I love downtown...love living here, working here...but it is a real statement of the times when women go in groups to lunch in the middle of the day because you don't walk alone in downtown Nashville anymore. In Nashville...imagine that. I don't know that there are any answers.
I do give to organizations in town that help the homeless and provide for them. It is the only thing I know to do.

By: Moonglow1 on 3/14/11 at 10:02

Moonglow1: to TITAN 1, I have voted Independent and Republican in the past, however, recently there is a national movement to crush the democratic process and rule of law. Read what is happening in Florida. The Republican legislature is fuming over the audacity of Rick Scott (the questionable businesses man) to circumvent the Florida rule of law. We are not yet living under a monarchy; however this Tea Party crew is acting like we are living under their rule. It is a concerted effort financed by Karl Rove and the Koch brothers and others to elevate corporate interests over those of the common man. And, my goodness, how dumb our TN elected officials are acting. If they could hold a meaningful debate, I would not be contributing to this opinion page. But because they are so ridiculous, I feel I must speak out. I want new business to come to TN, but when we are represented by complete dullards and intellectual cretins, the only business we are able to attract is monkey business. And yes I am pro business, but that does not mean corporate interests should get by free from a financial perspective.

By: avoidbelmont on 3/14/11 at 10:45

I've been to some of the meetings at the public library downtown where folks get up and walk out saying "this is a circus". There are a lot of smiling business men (and women) who are grossly overpaid by exploiting the homeless in Nashville.

Look at their comments and how they continue to "keep it vague". No one wants a solution, otherwise folks would actually DO something. The homeless are being used in that only a small number of them get housing/resources so the gov $$ keeps coming in for this so-called "Housing First Initiative". It is a joke.

The public does not unite enough and make enough noise (think Libya) to facilitate any real change. When a solution was offered to house the homeless two years ago, the public was all for it, but the Homelessness Commission was not. Why???? Because once you house the homeless in such a way that promotes self-sufficiency (even transitional housing) the $$$ stops.

If the homeless wanted to rally themselves around folks' individual houses or get arrested for public urination at certain folks' personal vehicles, that pressure might get a bit more results. If you were withholding funds that house the homeless and someone did that to you, what are you gonna do, arrest five thousand people?

Nashville still has the chance to get it right. I hope those greedy folks in (ahem) "power" choose to help the homeless and clean up the city. I feel sorry for the police force who have had to deal with the homelessness commission (useless!) and have received way less than the support and results they should.

And as for the Key Alliance...tisk, tisk, tisk. You are NOT, as usual, doing your jobs. HOUSE THE HOMELESS, AND EARN YOUR 101k SALARIES! Greedy!!!

By: DREIFMA on 3/14/11 at 11:47

I am tired of having "homeless advocates" intervening in police efforts to eliminate them from our downtown. If people arent working, touring or have a place to live that they paid or are paying for, they have no business cluttering and messing up downtown. It comes to me that somehow these advocates are being subsidized out of tax payer dollars or shaking down local businesses, that has to stop. Why is there even media coverage of this??? These people are a total drag on the economy. If you havent figured it out yet. This country is broke and these people arent deserving of any more programs. They dont work, never have and never will. Yet there are people out there that continue to tell us that if we just do it this way or a little more of this, it will work. They then go on to tell us about the 1 off odd success they had. These continuing hopeless homeless cases need to be put up in concentration camps with warm bunkhouses and a diet of surplus food commodities that meet all the RDA, if we still have those. Nothing special, but no maltreatment. They can earn their keep by cleaning the sides of the highways, state and federal parks so our more skilled and motivated workers can do higher level jobs. Oh yes and any public funding for advocates should be cut off.

By: spooky24 on 3/14/11 at 12:13

IT's apparent that some here need to go to Metro Police website and look at the daily arrest list. The same people arrested day after day for the same thing over and over-Public drunkenness. These people know that panhandling and getting drunk is their way of life. They are also aware that a short jail sentence accomplishes nothing and there are always enablers with taxpayer money to help them get drunk over and over.
It's just like the never ending arrest of illegal's for no drivers license. They have no incentive to get a real license, so they can't be punished in any way. They walk right out of the CJC get into any car that will run and do it over again-some on Saturday's list have been arrested for No/DL over 10 times. Why get a license when there are always enablers to plead their case not to deport them?

The simple soultion is to just move them on somewhere else so they can do the same thing on someones payroll other than Metro. These people don't want help-they just want to be left alone to continue to make a mockery of the taxpayer system.


By: yucchhii on 3/15/11 at 10:18

I find RICHGOOSE to be an abomination to socioty! His views are nothing but VEIN! People that don't look any further than their own nose needs to go away...FAR AWAY!!! RICHGOOSE is a prime example of those people who think this type of situation will NEVER happen to them! Therefore RICHGOOSE is also the type who thinks they are BETTER than others and will spit on those HE OR SHE views are not up to his or her level of social status! HEY RICHGOOSE, If I am wrong...PROVE ME WRONG!!! UNTIL THEN YOUR NOTHING BUT A SNOTNOSE VEIN BRAT THAT NEEDS HIS OR HER NOSE KNOCKED DOWN OUT OF THE CLOUDS!!! I am fed up with SPOILED BRAT CLOWNS LIKE YOU!!! YOU are lower than a snkesbelly because of your outlook on homeless! You better MAKE SURE you NEVER become homeless...atleast NOT AROUND NASHVILLE WITH THAT ATTITUDE...You won't last very long at all!!!!

By: yucchhii on 3/15/11 at 10:24

Many cities are in with OSAMA BAMA to destroy the continent called North AMERICA and push it down the drain. Ya know, Politicians think EVERYBODY in the USA are stupid. But the thing is they don't get it, If your on top, you CAN'T STAY on top without something to KEEP you on top. Money isn't going to be what keeps them on top because it's the PEOPLE they're stepping on that keeps them up there. BUT when the people are no longer there, those on top WILL FALL!!!! A tree top can't be the top without a trunk to support it!!! GREED CAN BLIND A PERSON!!!

By: yucchhii on 3/15/11 at 10:31

To Moonglow 1: Ya know, NOT JUST REPUBLICANS, It's the DEMOCRATS just as well!!! Do you know what Democrats and republicans have in common? It's easy, c'mon, you can think of it....ok, I'll tell you They are BOTH POLITICIANS!!! That's right!! Had you ever noticed that, how "ALL" politicians Democrats AND REPUBLICANShad BULL@#%& the public for years? Only the "GULLIBLE" have fallen for it! when have you seen any politician REALLY SERIOUSLY GIVE A DAM???

By: yucchhii on 3/15/11 at 10:40

To ARKAY 61: To a certain extent you have a point! BUT, yet this point has a tendency to get as dull as a butter knife. You word your comment in such a way that makes it sound like "ALL" homeless are drunks and druggies! The truth is that a handfull of homeless may be that which you describe. Homeless people come from all walks of life and NOT ALL homeless peopkle are drunks or druggies. Many of them have never drank any kind of alcohlol or have done any kind of drugs! This is the PLAIN TRUTH! So before you try to make the reputation of the homeless UNDULY worse, think about what your saying. Do you KNOW ALL THESE homeless people well enough to make those claims??? THINK ABOUT IT!

By: yucchhii on 3/15/11 at 10:45

To I AM A TAXPAYER: Thank you!!! Your point is VERY SHARP! Many of these people who are nothing but concerned about themselves don't get it! By the time they do, they themsleves will be homeless and will be crying that they need help and won't find any!!! That's because the people who are in the positions of any power are too GREEDY to do what's right!!!

By: yucchhii on 3/15/11 at 10:49

To TITAN 1 AND Moonglow: Have you ever noticed that neither DEMOCRATS OR REPUBLICANS GIVE A DAM ABOUT YOU? Have you ever noticed that IF voting actually mattered, that ALL the crooks who are destroying AMERICA would have been VOTED OUT years ago? But as it is, they're STILL THERE!!! Tell you something?

By: yucchhii on 3/15/11 at 11:12

To LIVING LIVELY: To an extent I appreciate what you say! BUT, As far as giving to organizations that help the homeless. Well, lets get into that a moment shall we. Places like the Nashville Rescue mission are decieving the public BIG TIME! If you don't know this, then read on. I know and see from personal experience that this place is BIG TIME CORRUPT! If anyone wants to argue that point, I DARE THEM TO GO UNDERCOVER AND INVESTIGATE FOR THEMSELVES!! Dignity is NOT something you will find at this place! Being treated worse than an animal is more the norm! Others want to use the cop out..."They're giving you something for free, you can't knock that" YES! YOU CAN! When most times the food isn't worthy of a hog, and the bed mattresses are worn out, full of holes and bed bugs. when the nights are cold and all you get is ONE RAGGED BLANKET and ONE SHEET. Then you get what ever belongings you have either stolen or thrown out by the staff! If you get hurt on the premises because of NEGLIGENCE on the part of the staff, they tell you "YOU CAN'T SUE US, WE'RE NON-PROFFIT!" Ok, lets turn our attention to that! The Nashville rescue mission has a budget of ten to eleven MILLION dollars. When pretty much EVERYTHING is donated, what do they have to spend that money on? If you see the living conditions these people have to deal with, then MAYBE you'll understand why MANY of these people don't want to stay there and knowingly risk their lives in the winter and stay away from there...if you knew of those circumstances you probably would too if you were homeless. Don Worrel, who is the ceo-president of the mission gets $98,000 per year and he's only there two or three times a year when the television cameras are there. Hmmm interesting, it's NON-profit but yet they can afford to pay Worrel $98,000 a year...VERY INTERESTING!!! TV stations won't investigate nor will the papers!!! Doesn't that make you scratch your head?

By: yucchhii on 3/15/11 at 11:22

To DREIFMA: You are another example of somebody who can't see beyond your own nose!! You OBVIOUSLY have NO CLUE as to what HOMELESSNESS is all about do you? You have NO CLUE that STUCK UP BITCHES LIKE YOU that never thought of being homeless are exactly that now! Then, you want the homeless eraddicated from the downtown area...ok, YOU tell me WHERE are they going to go? I don't want to hear "Somewhere other than here!" Because it turns into a vicious circle. You go from one place to another and they don't want you THERE. So you go SOMEWHERE ELSE and they don't want you THERE EITHER...SO, YOU TELL US WHERE AND TELL US HOW THEY WILL SURVIVE WHERE "YOU"TELL US!!! Your so SMART, YOU tell us "WHERE!" If you CAN'T come up with a PRACTICAL answer, then I suggest VERY STRONGLY that you get your nose OUT OF THE COUDS AND SHUT UP!!!

By: yucchhii on 3/15/11 at 11:33

To Spooky: To a good stretch of your point, I agree. BUT I disagree when it comes to shoving them off to someone elses community. That's just an easy way to get your neighboring communities PISSED OFF AT YOUR COMMUNITY! Why do you want that? Bearing in mind that as you said "There are the same names of repeat offenders over and over again. This also tells us that NOT ALL homeless are a problem. There are a good many homeless people out there that (I can bet) that you will NEVER have guessed that they are homeless by looking at them! There are many of them who are honestly TRYING to get back on their feet again because of circumstances beyond their control. For ANYBODY out there reading these comments, BEFORE you ridicule the homeless, I DARE YOU TO INVESTGATE! Get to KNOW some of these people BEFORE you are so quick to degrade them all and condemn them!!!