In early July, a stream of emails began to flow through circles of downtown residents and businesses and, then, into the Mayor’s Office and the police department’s Central Precinct. The emails uniformly expressed concern that the downtown homeless population had grown, and that bad elements within it lowered the quality of life of the neighborhood, specifically at Church Street Park, a public space in front of the main library that at times enjoys a large presence of homeless people.
Metro police say they have significantly increased their patrols of the park and its surrounding area this year over last, but it doesn’t end there. The department and the legal powers that be are also looking to strengthen their own enforcement powers of Metro ordinances with regard to homelessness.
Ed Mroz, general manager of the Sheraton Nashville Downtown, wrote in an email that the situation worsened around the first part of July — the same time Metro closed a relocated Tent City in Antioch — causing hotel guests to complain.
“I have been forced to hire staff to do nothing but prevent homeless people from entering the facility, using the restrooms, sleep in our fire escapes and interface with our out of town visitors,” Mroz wrote in an email obtained by The City Paper, adding that the “onslaught” of homeless people on Capitol Boulevard next to the park is costing his business revenue and, in turn, costing the city taxes.
Carolyn Ridley wrote that she was trying to sell a condo at The Cumberland on Church Street, but that a potential buyer refused to even go into the building to view the condo after seeing the homeless people in the park.
In an emailed response, Central Precinct Cmdr. Damian Huggins points out that events such as the Country Music Association festival and even the Bonnaroo Music Festival each year bring a greater number of vagrants to downtown Nashville, and many linger long after the events.
The May flood itself displaced the homeless population of Tent City, and downtown residents fear many of those from the homeless encampment have migrated to Church Street Park.
Metro officers have increased their community contacts in the immediate area surrounding the park by 225 percent over the same period last year, Huggins wrote in one email, greatly increasing the number of business checks, too.
Six homeless people contacted by The City Paper have reported observing a significant increase in citations handed out by police at Church Street Park.
But there are limits to what legal recourse police have in dealing with the homeless population. When officers write citations for violating Metro ordinances, a civil offense rather than criminal, the penalty usually results in a fine, which often goes uncollected from a homeless individual who may be unable to pay it. Metro ordinance citations — sometimes referred to as “green tickets” — are placed on the Environmental Court docket of the General Sessions Court. Metro officers also have the discretion of issuing state statute citations in more serious cases, which can carry a 30-day jail stay.
Metro Public Defender Dawn Deaner, whose office provides counsel for some indigent individuals in court on state violations, told The City Paper many don’t show up in court for a fine they can’t afford to pay.
“They don’t have any money to pay a fine,” she said, “So if you get a green ticket and the only thing that can happen to you is a $50 fine, and you know you can’t pay a $50 fine, why bother going to court?”
The police department is working with the General Sessions Court and the Metro Department of Law to enforce a contempt of court charge on those who violate Metro ordinances but choose not to show up for their court date or pay a fine. In his emailed response to the concerned Central Precinct residents, Huggins said the police department continues to work with Metro Legal and the Homelessness Commission to keep chronic offenders in custody longer, as well as to find them treatment and more long-term solutions.
“We are also very near being able to add some teeth to some ordinance issues that in the past have only resulted in basically warnings,” Huggins said.
Police spokesman Don Aaron said there have been discussions about holding those who don’t show up for court in contempt, meaning a jail stay. As well, according to Deaner, police are pushing for the use of “body attachments,” orders to jail someone who missed a court date and failed to pay a fine.
But the legal system can only offer a short-term localized stopgap to the chronic homelessness problem.
As the police commander indicated in his email and the public defender acknowledged, without solutions to affordable housing, better mental illness treatment programs and better opportunities for the homeless, there will be a significant homeless presence in Nashville, and specifically in downtown public spaces.