One of Nashville’s great virtues, oft repeated to newcomers, is that it has the amenities of a big city but the “feel” of a small town. And while this might sound like a meaningless fragment of Convention-and-Visitors-Bureau-generated ad copy, one finds that there is some practical applicability. Nashville is a big, stuff-filled place that sometimes operates at the (euphemistically) “relaxed” pace of the rural South. The amenities are indeed here; you’re just going to have to wait a minute. Nashville requires patience, like the patience to wait in extra-long morning and evening traffic jams on West End that just seem to suddenly, maddeningly dissipate for no reason. Or, for that matter, the any-time-of-day ones through Green Hills that just as maddeningly never, ever dissipate.
Or, if you’re someone like L.G. Fisher, Nashville demands the patience to slog through months of paperwork, daily meetings and phone calls, and also, living in a homeless shelter before you can finally get into one of the Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency’s 5,500 units.
It’s a good thing that Fisher — interviewed two weeks ago at Room In the Inn, the nonprofit homeless development center and emergency winter shelter — is so patient, then. According to Maggie Sananikone, a social services caseworker for Room In the Inn who’s been helping Fisher navigate the MDHA application process, he’s been waiting to get into a development for three months, living at the Nashville Rescue Mission in the meantime.
“I’m all right with it,” Fisher said. “As long as they’re trying, I mean hey, I can’t ask for no more than that.”
That serenity on Fisher’s part, there in Sananikone’s small office inside the group’s 705 Drexel St. building, is a sharp contrast from what was going on at the same moment in its main corridor, where at least 100 men were crowded, some sitting on the couches at the far end of the hall, others pushed up near the entrance, milling. All doing whatever they were doing quite loudly. At least 20 people were crowded around a semicircular desk facing the entrance, competing, again quite loudly, for the attention of two or three overwhelmed employees. At one point during the interview, one man managed to sneak past the desk and into the office hallway, knocking on Sananikone’s window.
“I’m sorry,” she said after she calmly and politely sent the man back to wait his turn. “There’s usually not just people coming back here like that.”
Fisher, 58, originally from Fayette County outside Memphis, is a former employee of Memphis Light, Gas, and Water, where he worked as an equipment operator for 23 years, until 1993, when he started using crack cocaine. The addiction cost him the job, he said. Since then, his housing situation has been spotty, though he’s only actually been on the street for one six-month stretch — he estimated this was around 2006 — in Jackson. He has family — a nephew, a son and a daughter — in Memphis, but he doesn’t think they’d be able to take him on, nor does he want them to.
Fisher is unemployed, living on $674 in monthly Social Security disability payments. He’s suffered two strokes, which for a period rendered his left leg entirely useless. After extensive physical therapy, he now walks very slowly and with a cane. He also has diabetes. He said those ailments have made him too weak to get the kind of physically intensive work he might be qualified for — he has trouble lifting heavy objects and is unable to stand for long periods of time.
Between the $674 and the $103 in food stamps — which will soon be reduced to $40, he said — he makes about $9,300 per year, for all his food, medication and living costs.
According to the Metropolitan Department of Social Services’ recently released 2010 Community Needs Evaluation, which identified the largest gaps between needs and available services, a renter must make about $2,340 per month, or just over $28,000 per year — nearly two full-time minimum wage jobs — to afford the HUD-estimated fair market rent and utilities on a one-bedroom apartment. That’s not to mention a security deposit, often one month’s rent or more and, according to Fisher and Sananikone, completely out of the question for him.
That last fact led him, for a time, to the Casa Linda Apartments in southern Davidson County, where he lived until September, when he was arrested and convicted on a misdemeanor drug paraphernalia charge.
“The case I had, it wasn’t because I had something in my room,” said Fisher, who claimed he’s been clean and sober for eight months. “I wouldn’t own it. I was going to my meetings. I was going to AA meetings at the time. Someone left something in my room. They came in and they found it.”
In any case, he left — “I didn’t want to cause any trouble at the building,” he said — and moved to the Nashville Rescue Mission. In November, he started working with Sananikone, who’s been looking for a temporary place for him — possibly even back at Casa Linda, with which Room In the Inn has a relationship — until something more permanent opens up.
“We don’t have enough housing,” said Sananikone, who on the day of this interview had appointments with three housing applicants.
That appears to bear out in the numbers from MDHA. According to spokeswoman Julie Oaks, 21 of MDHA’s 5,500 total public units were available as of Tuesday, Jan. 18, with 625 applications on the waiting list (672 for Section 8 housing, with an average wait time of 12 to 24 months each). It’s important to note here that the 625 does not mean individuals but applications, each of which could be for one person or a family of four or more. Oaks could not say how many people that number represents. Nor is it likely that it represents the total number of people who would like to be on that waiting list.
“You asked whether the [waiting list] number had changed between 2009 and 2010. That’s kind of a tricky question to answer,” Oaks said. “We changed our application process last year. The way that we used to do it is prior to 2010, anyone could apply at any time. We would have a huge wait list that we would have to work through.”
Whereas before the waiting list usually averaged about 2,500 people, she said, now the list is closed every time it starts to get too long, then reopened once it’s whittled down to a manageable number. The tipping point for list closure, she said, isn’t strictly set or defined, but rather left up to the property managers at each of MDHA’s 20 developments, depending on, among other things, how many people are scheduled to move out and what types of apartments are available.
Sananikone said that, among the people she helps, it’s difficult to figure anything approaching an average waiting time.
“It varies. It all depends on your age or if you’re disabled. Sixty-two and over is the first priority,” she said.
After that, it’s over 50 and disabled, provided the disability is verified in Social Security payments. Then disabled and on Social Security. If you’re disabled but not on Social Security, it gets a bit difficult.
“There are only a handful of places — three I can think of off the top of my head — that accept folks who have a disability but don’t have Social Security Disability yet,” Sananikone said.
People who are neither disabled nor elderly are in yet another, lower-priority category, and can often wait the better part of a year or more.
“Singles and families fall into the same category,” Sananikone said. “And of course families get priority over singles. So if you’re single, working, not making a whole lot, you’re going to have to wait a lot longer.”
For Fisher, Sananikone said, “I’d say average, for folks in L.G.’s category, and he’s over 50 and disabled, about two to four months, average.”
He’s approaching three. And though she was hopeful — a call about a possible opening at a Section 8 subsidized building in Madison had come through — Sananikone said it could still be months before he’s in a long-term apartment, meaning that much more shelter living, which Fisher doesn’t exactly relish but said he can live with.