It’s early afternoon at the temporary, post-flood Tent City, settled on a steep and grassy hill off Interstate 24 in Antioch. Shielded by dense woods, an aspiring singer harmonizes with country radio. Nearby a disabled veteran who goes by the name “Pops” is pitching a new tent. One camp over, it’s lunchtime.
David Kowalski collapses his wiry 6-foot-4 frame like an accordion as he kneels over his makeshift fire pit: four upside-down soup cans spread a couple inches apart with sticks, with leaves and ash piled in the center. Kowalski sets a grate on top of the four cans and ignites the fire with a candle. He rips open three packages of Ramen noodles, breaks off a corner of pepperjack cheese that hasn’t been refrigerated since he bought it the night before. His eyes roll up as he chews methodically, searching for a sour or bitter taste.
“Still good.” He smiles and breaks off half the block, dumping it in his noodles.
At 55, Kowalksi doesn’t mind the camping part one bit. He’s always been an avid outdoorsman, but he’s getting older. The walking, the uncomfortable sleep, the stress — these things add up. “I’m getting tired,” he sighs.
Work and family are the stabilization he craves, but he can’t seem to hold onto them. A lot of down luck, plenty of bad decisions and fractured relationships were his stepping-stones to homelessness. He’s always loved working and can spend hours rattling off stories of his 100-hour work weeks, a favorite boss who nicknamed him “Slim” and his impossibly long nights behind the wheel of a semi truck.
Since coming to Nashville 13 years ago, Kowalski has been homeless a handful of times, but the last year and a half has been the hardest. Construction jobs are few, and there’s a glut of people willing to do what little work there is for far less than what Kowalski believes he’s worth.
His days of living in a tent may soon end. For the first time in years, he has the opportunity to sign his name on a lease. That is, if he can find a way to navigate the bureaucratic maze that stands between the homeless and the housing many of them seek.
Metro Nashville is scheduled to close Tent City July 5, and some residents are awaiting public housing or trying to hunt down Section 8 apartments. But while city agencies focus their efforts on those options, advocates are pushing for a permanent transitional housing facility — a full-time Tent City, perhaps — that would keep the homeless plugged into the agencies and, the thinking goes, off the streets.
A lengthy process
After May’s flood, most of Tent City’s 140 residents ended up at an emergency shelter at Lipscomb University. During their roughly weeklong stay, two city agencies — the Metro Homelessness Commission and the Metro Development and Housing Agency — made available dozens of Section 8 housing vouchers for them and other flood victims. Those vouchers are agreements that the federal government will foot most of the rent bill for a year. The average assistance on a one-bedroom unit is close to $400.
The sudden availability of vouchers was a big deal. The Section 8 waiting list in Nashville is 1,400 deep, and new applications haven’t been taken since the fall of 2008. The homelessness commission’s top priority has always been to get the homeless into permanent housing, and officials there aim to have close to 2,000 units available by 2015. Halfway into that initiative, however, they’ve secured 350. While the Section 8 vouchers don’t create new apartments, they do get folks into existing ones.
The flood emergency allowed victims like Kowalski to leapfrog the usual wait. Sixty-six people applied, and close to 30 have been approved. Kowalski has been told his voucher is pending a birth certificate he’s been trying for weeks to get from his home state of Indiana. The state denied his initial attempt because of his expired license.
But having a voucher in hand offers few guarantees. Individuals must seek landlords who accept Section 8. Landlords can turn away those whose background checks make them wary. When that part is complete, the next step is a federal housing inspection. The whole ordeal requires initiative, time and transportation.
Getting into town from the new encampment in Antioch is a process: It takes about a half-hour to walk to the bus stop, and then it’s a 45- to 60-minute ride downtown. Kowalski doesn’t have a bus pass to get into town or money for his first order of business, the license renewal fee. But that license is crucial. He needs it to reapply for the birth certificate that will lead him to the voucher, which could result in an apartment.
Kowalski knows that even once his license is taken care of, it could take up to a month for his certificate to arrive. Even after all that’s complete, he’ll need a temporary place to stay. Pat Clark, MDHA’s director of rental assistance, said it can take two to four weeks — best-case scenario — to go from voucher to house keys in hand.
An outreach worker tells Kowalski that a church downtown will cover the cost of getting a new license, and someone procures a one-day bus pass for him. His case manager could help him with all this, but Kowalski admits he’s not been good at keeping in touch with her. A desire to be independent is partly to blame, he says. No electricity at camp to charge his phone and a limited number of minutes also don’t help. So he’ll head out in the next few days and try to get that license.
On this afternoon, though, Kowalski is more concerned with the time left on a cooler full of meat and eggs that hasn’t enjoyed ice for days. He’ll probably have to throw it away. He pokes at his noodles with a fork, and the four soup cans tremble. Boiling water and noodles threaten to spill. Ants scurry. A daddy long legs spider halts its lazy commute, seeming to take in the spectacle.
Kowalski remembers the water creeping up his front porch of wood pallets and into his single shed that, with its twin bed, he says was cozy, a little “like a child’s bedroom.” That Sunday morning, Doug Sanders, a minister with Brentwood’s Otter Creek Church of Christ who has worked with Tent City residents for about two years, arrived with buses. He and other volunteers, including Jeannie Alexander of Amos House Community, drove most residents to the emergency Red Cross shelter at Lipscomb.
When that shelter closed, Alexander, Sanders and the Metro Homelessness Commission secured hotel vouchers and space in local churches for a few weeks. But it soon became clear that roughly 50 Tent City residents were about to find themselves with expired hotel vouchers and churches that could no longer house them. Some had received rental assistance checks from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but they didn’t want to spend all the money on motels. Sanders and Alexander worried that if this group were released to the streets, a flurry of trespassing arrests was sure to follow.
Returning to the old Tent City wasn’t an option. The land was caked with diesel fuel and feces from overturned portable toilets. Sanders and Alexander thought sending Tent City residents back fell somewhere between hazardous and inhumane. The two tried convincing city officials to help find a temporary spot for residents until a long-term solution presented itself.
On May 7, they brought a resolution to the homelessness commission that requested Metro government find a piece of land that could house this population, and waive any codes and restrictions that might be in place. There weren’t enough members at that meeting to vote.
Sanders believed he had to act quickly. He made calls to friends. Lee Beaman, a prominent Nashville businessman and Otter Creek Church member, was one of them. Beaman offered a section his 124-acre lot in Antioch.
Tents were pitched as the sun set on Tuesday, May 25. Sam Coleman, that area’s Metro councilman, along with neighbors and homelessness commission members, were notified after the fact. Many Antioch residents were outraged that the community wasn’t involved in the transfer of homeless men and women, a group that includes felons and a sex offender, to their district at a time when Antioch is working to clean up its image.
But within days, Metro’s codes department deemed the camp illegal. Beaman’s plot is zoned for commercial use. An encampment like Tent City not only needs to be on agricultural land, but it also requires a variance, or special permission to exist. That’s not happening.
Soon after it formed in 2005, the Metro Homelessness Commission adopted a national best-practice model known as Housing First. The program uses housing as a motivator, moving people from the street straight into housing and saturating them with intense case management services.
This reverses the old way of doing things. For a long time, a homeless person would need to complete drug and alcohol treatment or job training before having a shot at housing. Jumping through all those hoops can be difficult and overwhelming.
“We know that housing plus the case management services keeps people housed and reduces the number of people on the street,” Clifton Harris, director of the homelessness commission, said. “It reduces jail time, it reduces hospital visits, it reduces time going to feeding programs. The whole nine yards.”
Housing First case managers typically have only 10 or 12 clients, which allows for almost-daily monitoring of a client’s needs. It’s a model that 50 formerly homeless people have been a part of in Nashville. Harris said the 92 percent housing retention rate proves it’s effective.
But Housing First can cost $9,000 to $17,000 a year per person, and the commission does not have that kind of money: While it has a fundraising goal of $20 million over the next five years for this initiative, so far the coffers boast only about $26,000.
During the first week of June, Harris and several case managers with Metro Social Services drove out to Tent City and compiled a roster of those with housing vouchers. Anybody without a case manager was assigned one of the five in Metro Social Services’ homelessness division.
Jeannie Alexander welcomed the visit and helped guide Harris and his team to campsites strewn along the wooded hillside. She applauds housing for the homeless. Still, she doesn’t consider a couple dozen Section 8 vouchers a panacea.
“I’m not going to jump on this bandwagon of people who are pretending like, ‘OK, it’s all better, we got some vouchers. We don’t need a permanent transitional encampment anymore’ — because it’s not true,” she said.
Alexander said finding housing for Tent City residents with criminal backgrounds would be difficult. Also, she knows how long the process of getting into a Section 8 apartment can be. Interviews, inspections and locating available units can suck up weeks. Vouchers are only good for 60 days.
She said a transitional site where case managers and outreach workers can keep tabs on the homeless would help. Alexander is concerned that on July 5, a couple dozen residents will have nowhere to go, and discussions for some kind of Tent City reincarnation have gone silent.
Many from the camp either are not allowed into the Nashville Rescue Mission — the city’s only full-scale relief center — or simply don’t like the crowds. Alexander doesn’t think it’s realistic to assume all will choose the shelter over the streets.
“The flood came and made Tent City disappear,” she said. “And unfortunately there was the thought, some people had the thought, ‘Great, it’s over, it’s gone.’ But it’s not. The flood didn’t wash people away.”
Sanders and Alexander are searching for a new encampment. One idea on the table prior to the flood was to relocate Tent City and upgrade it to a more formal transitional housing setup. It was clear from the onset this would not be a Metro-funded project. In a February 2010 public meeting, Erik Cole, commission chair and a Metro councilman, said outside agencies would be responsible for that. Still, the commission proceeded.
Sanders researched other successful transitional encampments in cities like Portland, Ore., and Austin, Texas. He said the new place was going to be different from the old Tent City, often perceived as a drunken, lawless site.
“We’d like something with more dignity,” he said, a place with more rules, a council and possibly even one-room sheds rather than tents. Residents would have to work toward getting into apartments or homes. Sanders even thought volunteerism should be required.
Harris, director of the commission, was in charge of selecting feasible relocation sites in Davidson County. On May 7, he reported that more than half of the six sites that had tentatively been chosen for relocation were underwater and no longer viable. He added, “We’re still looking for sites, kind of on a daily basis.”
Harris did inform those gathered for a meeting, though, that getting an encampment on Metro property wouldn’t come quickly or easily. The planning and zoning department and the Metro Council would also need to offer their blessings.
In the weeks following that May 7 meeting, any discussion of a permanent Tent City has been replaced with an ardent push for housing.
“That’s what we’re trying to stay focused on and not get distracted by other initiatives that may be going on simultaneously that we have no control over,” Harris said. He stressed that long-term, supportive housing has always been the No. 1 priority of the commission.
Is it working?
Metro’s housing agency has received confirmation that four of the Section 8 vouchers are being put to use, but both Harris and Alexander say more have secured housing.
On a recent muggy Tuesday morning, Alexander drives two Tent City residents — “Vegas” and “TeeTee” — to look at a renovated unit with a landlord open to Section 8. Sitting in the back of Alexander’s Jeep, Vegas puts his arm around TeeTee. They’re nervous. For a couple years now, Vegas and TeeTee have been the protective parents to an ever-changing transient brood. A new arrival’s first stop was always their camp for Tent City 101. Vegas listed the rules. TeeTee often helped get a tent, blankets, or whatever else was needed.
Alexander pulls up to the two-story brick building bordered by electrical and plumbing supply stores. Within minutes of seeing the freshly painted walls, new tile floors and bathtub, both are sold. “Not bad,” mutters TeeTee. “We’ll take it,” Vegas echoes.
Vegas promises to buy TeeTee a stepping stool for the kitchen cabinets she can’t reach, and like professional house-flippers, they discuss the value of replacing the fluorescent lights with track lighting.
Vegas and TeeTee, who met at Tent City, are getting married at the end of July. The new place will add to the tranquility. Vegas, who writes music with his brother, wants to dive into the industry here. The shower, electricity and address should help. TeeTee still wants to assist at Tent City, but she also says she’s “blessed” to finally be getting out. It took a long time and a natural disaster, but her end date is almost here.
Meanwhile, David Kowalski’s wait continues. With three weeks until the Antioch camp closes, he decides to use the bus pass, get his license renewed, and reapply for his birth certificate. Then he can secure a voucher.
Kowalski heads out of camp and starts the 30-minute walk up Bell Road toward Hickory Hollow Mall, where he’ll catch the No. 15 bus. Like almost everyone else at the camp, he doesn’t like being so far away from downtown, where necessities like showers, meals and computers are in supply.
As he sits waiting for the bus, Kowalski looks out at the mall. “I used to spend money at that mall,” he says, recalling the days when he could open his wallet and have the cash for a vest or gloves from Wilson’s Leather. The independence of his past makes relying on the mercy of others all the more painful.
The 45-minute bus ride downtown wears on Kowalski’s patience. The bus comes to a stop at the site of the new Music City Convention Center, where towering cranes assist daily growth spurts of concrete and metal. He leans toward the window and points: “That dozer I could operate. See that truck down on the bottom? That’s an articulated dump truck. I could operate that,” he says with pride. Kowalski talked to someone at the site about a job two months ago, but the man told him they weren’t hiring. “Maybe I talked to the wrong person,” he says as his voice trails off.
Kowalski makes his way to Downtown Presbyterian near the library to try to get the money for his license renewal. It’s 11:15 a.m., and the woman at the church office tells him they only cut checks until 11:30. She says he must first head to Seventh and Charlotte to fill out the necessary application. His 15-minute window would close before the walk and paperwork can be completed, meaning the check will have to wait another day.
“I didn’t know that,” Kowalski sighs, his shoulders falling forward. His bus pass is only good for one day, so if he heads back to camp, he won’t be able to make it downtown tomorrow. He decides to stay in town for the night. There’s an air-conditioned church he knows will let him in.
The next morning, Kowalski heads to the Driver Services Center with the $37 for license renewal tucked into his leather wallet. As he sits in front of the blue silk backdrop for his picture, he takes off his cap and smiles broadly. He asks for a second picture just to make sure there’s a good one. He leaves the office giddy, confident the new ID will help him get work.
With a few days left before the Antioch camp closes, Kowalski’s certificate hasn’t arrived, and Tent City residents are heading to churches and motels — temporarily. Sanders and Alexander hope upcoming talks with the homelessness commission will result in a more permanent solution.
Kowalski may stick with the pack, but he has a plan B. If the church shelter is too cramped and his housing remains in limbo, he’ll pack up and start walking.
He may head out of town or spend his days looking for work in Nashville. Once the sky dims, he’ll slip into a pocket of empty land big enough for him and his tent and settle in. Come morning, he’ll open his eyes to the blue fabric walls he’d like to tear down for the last time.