Faced with a month-long jail sentence for a series of citations ranging from criminal trespassing to public drunkenness, “John” walked gingerly to the podium in General Session Judge Dan Eisenstein’s courtroom two days before the Thanksgiving holiday and vowed to do whatever he could to stay off the streets and out of the county lock-up.
“I’m willing to give something a shot, because I’m about ready to lose my life out there on the streets,” John said.
Eisenstein already knew John’s standing in the world. He had been arrested for an array of similar in the past and kept finding his way into the turnstile that is the criminal justice system for Nashville’s homeless.
Instead of sending John back to jail, which likely would have merely been a stopgap before a return trip to his courtroom, Eisenstein offered him a deal. Eisenstein would suspend his sentence for 30 days and put John in touch with mental health professionals who could provide him with therapy and medication.
The offer also included a bed at a local shelter and a caseworker to keep track of his progress.
“Now, I don’t want to see you any more,” Eisenstein said, offering a warning to John. “I’ve seen you here several times. I’m trying to help you, but you have to help me help you.”
The arrangement worked out between John and Eisenstein is part of an effort by the judge to offer help to the chronically homeless instead of ordering another costly jail sentence. When a homeless individual comes in front of Eisenstein he directs them to shelters, medical care, mental health help and other services.
Before the homeless person even appears in court, Eisenstein’s administrative assistant Sandra Campbell attempts to contact their family. Sometimes Campbell tracks down a relative out of state who is surprised to learn their loved one is even alive. In cases like that, Eisenstein provides the person with a bus ticket, paid for by private funds, so they can be reunited with their family.
Sometimes the family member is unable or unwilling to offer any help. During Eisenstein’s alternative sentencing docket this week, three of the seven homeless people appearing before him were reconnected with their family.
“I don’t want to go back to jail. I want to go home,” said “Roxie,” facing a series of charges, after learning her mom would be picking her up the next day.
Program could be expanded
Earlier this month, the Downtown Quality of Life Committee produced a seven-page report detailing initiatives Metro could enact to make life better for those who live in Nashville’s urban core. Although some of the suggestions were cosmetic – better street lighting and parking options – many are directed at addressing Nashville’s homeless problem.
The committee was formed after a controversial Council proposal earlier this year to essentially legislate away panhandling by homeless people in the city’s urban core.
When that failed, the committee began meeting to come up with tangible efforts to help Nashville’s homeless. According to Councilman Erik Cole, who served on the committee, part of the issue is consolidating services — finding a one-stop shop where the homeless can receive the services they need.
Of all the suggestions offered in the committee’s final report, Cole said Eisenstein’s creative sentencing program is the one he would like to pursue first.
“What we need to do is work with existing sentencing, but also provide services if there are organizations that can help,” Cole said.
Eisenstein said he intends to extend his program beyond alternative sentencing and bus tickets to family members.
With financial help from the Nashville Downtown Partnership, Eisenstein plans to launch a pilot program that offers stable housing and potentially jobs as well.
“We’re going to take five people off this docket and Downtown Partnership has agreed to sponsor it and we’re going to be the anchor,” Eisenstein said. “We’re going to help with housing, help reuniting them with family. If they need mental health help, medical help, we’ll do that so that if they’ll have one place to come back and that’ll be through the Downtown Partnership and me. It’ll be more organized.
“You can’t look at the homeless problem as one issue. You have to take each person as they are. It has to be person-to-person.”
Proactive approach encouraged
In addition to Eisenstein’s program, the committee has encouraged a proactive approach to helping the homeless as well.
Eisenstein connects those who agree to alternative sentencing in his docket to a nonprofit group called Park Center. Outreach Project Coordinator Will Connelly includes that individual in a study he’s conducting that calculates an individual’s vulnerability index.
Connelly asks the homeless individuals a series of questions regarding their history on the streets, their substance abuse struggles and their health history. A high score means a person has a high probability of dying on the streets.
The Park Center sends staff onto the streets to conduct the interviews, take photos of those who cooperate and compile a database.
“We’re trying to get in touch with people and instead of saying to our guy who goes out in the streets, ‘OK go to Riverfront Park and find people,’ we tell him to find these 12 people and he’s got their photos and information,” Connelly said.
Cole said the committee determined that a proactive approach like Eisenstein’s program and the Park Center’s outreach efforts would be the best way to go. The question is how Metro can get behind the new initiatives.
“We try to appeal to people on two levels,” Connelly said. “The first is to appeal to their heart and say, these people have issues they have a high probability of dying on the streets.
“The second is to appeal to their logic and say, this is an issue that’s costing money and being proactive actually saves money in the long run. I think what the judge is doing is commendable. He’s trying to be creative and he’s trying to help.”
Editor’s Note: This story uses aliases for the homeless individuals who cooperated with the alterative sentencing program.