The entrance to a homeless camp in Nashville. Credit: Addison Wright, Nashville Banner

The woman removed her shoes before entering her tent, placing them next to a home decor vase arrangement and a seashell windchime. The encampment consisted of items like a welcome sign, a hanging chandelier, two solar panels, a battery and a security camera jutting out from a tree.

Her encampment is one of many being assessed for potential closure under Cooper’s strategy, now entering phase two just in time for Nashville’s next mayor.

“I was in the hospital for four and a half months in ICU and I got out and everything was gone, everything I worked for,” said the woman. “People, they judge you out here. They automatically assume that you’re on drugs or you’re an alcoholic or you’re a prostitute, and that’s not true…No matter where you go, for me, I just keep getting thrown out like trash.” 

This woman, who asked to remain anonymous for safety reasons, has lived unhoused for ten years. She’s part of Nashville’s 1,320 individuals who are chronically homeless, or 62 percent of Nashville’s total 2,129 unhoused individuals, according to the city’s January 2023 point-in-time count.

This means 62 percent of Nashville’s unhoused population are “unaccompanied…with a disabling condition…continuously…for a year or more” or have “had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years,” according to the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. 

“Because of Nashville’s high proportion of chronically homeless people, more people live on the streets for longer periods of time and are more likely to perish on the streets of our city,” reported the 2022 Nashville Performance Study of Homeless and Affordable Housing.

The mortality rate for those living unhoused doubled from 2016 to 2022, with 176 estimated deaths in 2022, according to Open Table’s Nashville’s 2022 Homeless Memorial.

And the number of individuals living unhoused is on the rise. 

Tennessee ranks third among states with the largest increase of unhoused individuals from 2020-2022, an increase of 45.6 percent in that time period. Furthermore, Nashville’s number of unhoused individuals has increased 11 percent from 2022. In the United States, the number of individuals experiencing unsheltered homelessness has increased by 3 percent.

It is becoming increasingly harder to provide affordable housing as 45 percent of renters and 24 percent of homeowners are cost-burdened, or “spend more than 30 percent of their annual income on housing,” according to the 2022 Nashville Performance Study of Homeless and Affordable Housing.

Tension has risen on how to solve this issue, though: advocates of Reclaim Brookmeade Park and Greenway and South Nashville business owners have voiced concern about the unhoused population’s effect on Nashville’s safety. Last August, Tennessee became the first state to make camping on public property a felony. 

What has John Cooper’s administration done to address homelessness?

Last October, the Metro Council approved Mayor John Cooper’s “housing first” $50 million legislation to address homelessness in Nashville. 

“The concept is simple: Offer a person housing first, then connect the housed person with supportive treatment services,” according to the The Metro Homeless Impact Division (MHID) glossary definition of “housing first.” 

This housing first model is also known as “permanent supportive housing,” and Metro is choosing to prioritize housing for those living in encampments.

Cooper’s $50 million is divided into four areas – $25 million to build affordable housing, $9 million to construct temporary interim gap housing, $7 million to incentivize lower landlord rent restrictions and to provide support services grants, and $9 million to provide wraparound services like physical and mental care. These funds are drawn from American Rescue Plan COVID-19 pandemic relief funds.

“Is there more money that could be used or needed? Absolutely,” said April Calvin, MHID director. “We’re working with our office of Homeless Services budget going forward, and Mayor Cooper was instrumental in saying how do we put more money in your budget to help accommodate the people that are suffering outside?”

Metro’s strategy includes two components — outreach where teams 

“connect encampment residents with services” and a “housing surge” where encampment residents are given a choice of either “interim housing placement and a pathway to permanent housing, or immediate permanent housing placement,” according to a 2022 strategy document.

Calvin refers to this plan as “life-saving.” The housing surge process chooses encampments to close based on a prioritization team’s rank of “vulnerability of population,” “location characteristics,” “physically dangerous conditions of the space” and “environmental health,” according to a sample MHID encampment assessment form. 

“When you have limited resources, then you have to do a prioritization path,” said Calvin. “Following best practices will allow us to house those that are most vulnerable, to focus on the people, the environment and then the location.”

This “prioritization path” is a point of contention. Vanderbilt Professor Beth Shinn and Vanderbilt doctoral candidate Molly K. Richard report in their American Journal of Public Health article that prioritization can leave behind groups of people.

“Because African Americans are more likely to use shelters than their white counterparts, a rule that prioritizes unsheltered people also favors white people,” Shinn and Richard wrote.

This is not the first time Cooper has been involved in closing encampments. 

Before his 2022 “housing first” plan, Cooper’s administration prioritized closing the Jefferson Street bridge encampment — one of Nashville’s oldest encampments — and received criticism from advocates, including Open Table Nashville who said there was not enough available affordable housing to be removing encampment residents. 

In phase one of Cooper’s 2022 plan, the encampments at Brookmeade Park, on Edmondson Pike in Wentworth-Caldwell Park and at the downtown TA truck stop have been closed, with 135 people housed. Metro officials say housing for residents at the truck stop will continue in phase two.

When an encampment is chosen to be cleared for a housing surge, case managers then prepare residents for the surge and its 30-day notice, assessing the residents’ needs and desires. Transportation, tubs for belongings, moving resources and education services are provided. The case manager stays in contact while wraparound resources are provided.

Many encampment residents move to interim housing in converted motels or faith-based communities, where the average stay is about 96 days. Calvin’s goal is an average of 90 days. Once in permanent housing, 87 percent of encampment residents have stayed, compared to the national average of 75 percent remaining in housing, reported Calvin.

Now, Calvin, MHID and Nashville’s team of community providers are conducting encampment assessments for phase two of the housing surge. In addition, Nashville’s first Office of Homelessness is opening on July 1, and Mayor Cooper’s 2024 fiscal year proposed operating budget would divert funds to 29 employee positions, giving them $1.25 million in a community partnership and support services fund.

In short, Cooper has just begun several programs about to be handed off to the next mayor.

What could the next mayor do? 

The next mayor will take office when Nashville’s first Office of Homelessness Services is a few months old. It will need mayoral support.

Nashville has an array of helpful resources that do not always work efficiently and effectively together toward a common goal, according to the 2022 Nashville Performance Study of Homeless and Affordable Housing.

One resource, the Continuum of Care (CoC) program, was combined with the Metro Homeless Commission to form the Metro Homeless Impact Division in 2018. 

The CoC program gives grant funding to state and local governments, along with nonprofit providers, to collaborate on programs and data acquisition. It was established by the 2009 Hearth Act through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Additionally, homelessness’ intersection with public health, housing affordability, domestic violence, mental illness, substance misuse and more brings together a wide range of community providers in the city to address the issue.

There are also over 30 Nashville housing options, including emergency shelters, transitional housing, rapid rehousing, permanent housing, and more. 

Coordination around homelessness is possible though. Houston, for example, reduced its unhoused population by 63 percent from 2011 to 2022 through a data-driven housing-first model that brought all service providers around the same goal — to make homelessness “rare and brief” by addressing the chronically unhoused population. 

On the record 

We asked the eight mayoral candidates for their positions on two different areas of homelessness. 

Mayor Cooper’s proposed operating budget would give funds to establish a new Office of Homelessness on July 1 and divert funds to 29 employee positions, a community partnership fund, and a housing and support services fund as encampment assessments are beginning for phase two of a housing surge program. Do you support the housing first model that is currently clearing encampments? Why or why not? If so, what type of investment would you be willing to commit to support the housing first model that is in place?

(in alphabetical order)

Heidi Campbell: I will absolutely support the development of new affordable housing in our city through both private-public partnerships and potentially city-funded developments during my administration, but I also want to pursue a broader variety of solutions. One of these is ensuring that our unhoused citizens receive the care they need, which is why I will fund and expand mental health programs at Nashville General Hospital; partner with the Mental Health Collaborative to redirect certain 911 calls away from police officers and towards specially trained professionals like paramedics and counselors; and build relationships with organizations like the Sexual Assault Center and the Safe Haven Family Center, to help more people escaping domestic violence get the resources they need. And while I support the current Mayors’ plan to divert funds towards establishing an Office of Homelessness and subsequently creating a wider net of affordable housing opportunities, we cannot ignore that homelessness is inextricably linked with Nashville’s affordability problems. That is why, in addition to encouraging investment in affordable housing, my administration will also work with community-led organizations to get input on management, planning, and identifying affordable land parcels,

Jim Gingrich: Homelessness is a tragedy, and something that our leaders have failed to effectively address for much too long. There is substantial data to show housing first is the most effective solution. Cities that have been effective in addressing homelessness (e.g., Houston) have done four things: (1) coordinated the effort of various city agencies, non-profits, faith community, and community partners through the mayor’s office; (2) built sufficient quantities of permanent housing, the large majority being done by the private sector; (3) effectively scaled, supported and coordinated community partners/non-profits to provide the required support services; (4) built robust data-based processes and systems to support the entire effort. Last year, the city began construction of a permanent supportive housing facility of 90 units that will cost just nearly $300,000 a unit. However, we need several thousand units.  As mayor, we will take the necessary steps to ensure that our private sector is building this type of housing (e.g., motel refurbishment) as well as more innovative/lower cost solutions (e.g., pre-manufactured housing such as what is going on at Fisk).

Sharon Hurt: Yes, I absolutely support a housing first model. As the Executive Director of Street Works one of our services is providing housing to unhoused people. We follow a housing first model and I have seen this type of program change lives firsthand. Cooper committed $50 million to the Office of Homelessness and I would do the same, if not more. A program like this should’ve happened 20 years ago, we’re playing catch up now.

Freddie O’Connell: I’m glad Mayor Cooper is implementing the Office of Homelessness I created and passed with my colleagues in the Metro Council. The lack of coordination during our COVID response revealed a clear need to elevate leadership on homelessness issues to the level of a department head. We should now be able to drive toward a more seamless, silo-free approach to homelessness.

A Housing First model is just that – a person who is unhoused is connected first to housing that is low-barrier before accessing any voluntary supportive services for their physical, mental, and economic health. It’s part of our path forward, but it can’t be our only plan, because different people have different needs. Some of our neighbors will never be in a condition where they can produce enough income to attain market-rate housing, and some have disabilities or mental health conditions that mean they will always be in need of services unavailable in traditional housing scenarios. We need to ensure that we have capacity for both housing and social services, as well as both temporary and permanent housing options to ensure that some of our most vulnerable neighbors can take the next steps in their lives.

We also have the capacity to bring in far more federal money to support this work and multiply our effort. As mayor, I would continue the work I led as chair of our Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) Oversight Committee to ensure our HMIS system is one of the most effective in the country. Having worked on the Metro Homeless Impact Division’s three-year strategic community plan, I know it is also critical to reinvest in our Continuum of Care to increase our competitiveness to earn grants and federal funding. The most important investment we’ll make next is preparing for the landscape when one-time federal dollars we used as part of our COVID response are no longer available.

Alice Rolli: The budget under discussion will be in place through June 2024. The Rolli administration will spend the first 100 days with stakeholders to evaluate both recurring and non-recurring expenses, the priorities of citizens as set through this election, and announce budget adjustments by February 2024. As important as housing are the wraparound services and the accountability needed to not create additional challenges for neighbors in the areas where housing is created. Specifically we must also address mental health issues, job training, literacy skills, addiction recovery and other programming. We will ensure that we are bringing to bear both state and federal dollars available to address these health and public safety issues in the process of clearing homeless encampments. 

Vivian Wilhoite: Yes. I support a housing first model.  We need to support it with the amount of money needed to get the job done. We also need to look at public-private partnership opportunities to lease metro lands to developers to increase the number of affordable housing units in our city. 

Matt Wiltshire: Homelessness is an acute problem our city is facing and I applaud the Mayor for establishing this new Office of Homeless Services and for breaking ground last year on new permanent supportive housing. With that said, this crisis didn’t appear overnight and could have been avoided with a long term vision and better planning. We should not be satisfied by this incremental progress. Even with the incremental progress, our city still still lacks the number of supportive housing options we need. Further, we’ve done a poor job delivering individualized services to treat the addiction, substance abuse, and mental health challenges many folks are experiencing.

I support the housing first model. As Mayor I’ll work to build more supportive housing, and bolster our delivery, both within government and the non-profit sector, of wrap-around services.

Jeff Yarbro: Nashville should follow the example of cities like Houston, Milwaukee, and Atlanta that have achieved real and lasting success through the Housing First model. We cannot just seek to make homelessness less visible by pushing the unhoused through the county jail, emergency rooms, encampments, and temporary shelters. That approach is expensive and counterproductive. In cities following that model, the problem gets worse and worse each year. The core problem of homelessness is pretty obvious. It’s people living without homes. Nashville should have a two-part strategy. First, we should engage in rapid rehousing to ensure people fall into homelessness rarely, briefly, and only once—because each day or week living on the streets makes it harder to return to health, employment, or housing. Second, for those experiencing chronic homelessness, our priority should be to stabilize housing needs so they can get appropriate case work, treatment for physical or mental health conditions and substance use disorders, and the targeted assistance that is needed. Cities have only succeeded in Housing First efforts when the strategy is adopted community-wide with buy-in from the nonprofit community and faith communities already serving our unhoused neighbors, as well as engaged private sector leadership. Much of the investment is up-front capital and capacity-building expenditures to ensure we’re actually solving the challenge and eliminating the longer-term operational costs of failing to do so. We need to use both short-term grants, private-public partnerships, and long-term city financing to quickly ramp up the effort that aims toward a rapid surge in both supportive housing resources and the professionals and volunteers needed to do the work both effectively and humanely while aiming toward a more sustainable, lower-cost operational budget in out years. But the right approach is eliminating chronic homelessness in the city rather than merely manage the expenses as an ever-growing problem. It’s really a question of political will and leadership. 

Tennessee became the first state to make camping on public land a felony last August. As Nashville’s unhoused population continues to grow, do you think homelessness is a safety issue for Nashville? How can safety be secured for both housed and unhoused people? 

Hedi Campbell: Firstly, I am fervently opposed to this bill, and voted against it in the Senate not just because of its many problems, but also because of its dehumanizing message. While I do think some safety risks can arise with homeless encampments, over-policing and criminalizing these communities will only exacerbate this issue. Instead, I want to work with our community partners that are already pursuing violence intervention and support networks. By supporting  the Department of Homelessness and partnering with organizations like Oasis, Open Table, and more, we can ensure that our efforts are community-led and prioritize transition opportunities.  

Jim Gingrich: There are many circumstances that can cause an individual to become homeless, such as; job loss, lack of affordable housing, mental illnesses, substance abuse, domestic violence, and/or illness/physical disabilities. Both housed and unhoused individuals’ safety will benefit from a solution. The current situation is unacceptable. 

Sharon Hurt: Homelessness may contribute to our public safety issues. However I believe that it is a symptom rather than a cause itself. The reason we have homelessness and public safety issues in the first place is a lack of money, lack of jobs, lack of opportunity. So to solve the public safety issues for everyone, we need to replace this lack with possibility. We also need to to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health and drug abuse problems, because often time the stigma is what prevents people from reaching out for the resources they need.

Freddie O’Connell: I worry about the safety of all of our residents, including the unhoused. I worry the change in state law will become a vehicle for the constant displacement of people who are generally just trying to avoid others and have nowhere else to go. We know that when encampments become unsanitary and unsafe, there are problems for the people camping and others; it’s important to set expectations about public space, and we should do more to ensure that public health, safety, and sanitation issues are being addressed wherever there are issues. But lacking stable housing isn’t a crime, and we shouldn’t treat it as one. Neither is mental illness. But we must have options, and the reality is that shelters aren’t always an option for folks with mental illnesses, disabilities, or those who aren’t comfortable in faith-based spaces or those who have children or pets. They simply cannot provide the long-term support that people who are at risk of being chronically homeless need. And if we can’t provide support for the mental and behavioral needs, or the economic ones, that can lead to crime, then we’re really just shifting the problem – not fixing it. We’ll secure safety by using the better data I worked to ensure, the improved federal funding, local funding sources like the Barnes Housing Trust Fund, and a strengthening backbone of local providers to provide housing and services for those for whom it is so often not affordable—our unhoused neighbors.

Alice Rolli: Yes. Homelessness is a major safety issue. Statewide we need more beds in residential mental health facilities, which is being proposed by Chairman Cepicky in the upcoming state legislative session. As Mayor, my administration will vocally demand our District Attorney enforce existing laws related to possession of stolen weapons, drug possession, and assault – irrespective of who is committing the crime in our city. When we fail to enforce our existing laws we are making criminals more bold and victims feel more helpless. 

Vivian Wilhoite: I believe that being unhoused should never in and of itself be a crime. We must treat people with more respect than that. Rather than giving our unhoused citizens charges we need to be giving them services to get back on their feet. Yes, homelessness could be a safety issue due to the unhoused person not having access to safe and secure housing. Safety can be secured for both the housed and unhoused when we give people the mental health, addiction and treatment services and housing support they need, everyone is safer: both the housed and unhoused. 

Matt Wiltshire: Nashville’s affordable housing crisis has greatly contributed to the challenges we face in housing insecurity and homelessness. But this challenge is deeper than the cost of housing. Right now we’re not providing adequate services for people who are struggling with addiction and substance abuse disorders, experiencing mental health challenges, medical debt, and unemployment. We need a coordinated approach, that follows national best practices, to give folks the services they need.

With all of that said, our focus needs to be on improving the quality of life for everyone. To reclaim our public spaces such as parks and sidewalks, we must ensure the supportive housing programs we invest in actually work.

As a Mayor, I would bring together leaders representing businesses, the faith-community, nonprofits, foundations, and neighborhoods to match any government dollars we invest in implementing a quality supportive housing program. Together we will regularly review and evaluate progress and hold each other and the people we serve accountable. It takes a combined effort to build communities we all want to live in.

Jeff Yarbro: Homelessness is a safety issue, but not a safety issue that should be primarily addressed through the criminal justice system. I fought against the legislation to make sleeping in public a felony. Where a person lacks a home or temporary shelter, making it a felony to go to sleep is effectively outlawing the person’s existence. It’s just wrong. Moreover, that law actually incentivizes individuals sleeping on private property where criminal penalties are less severe. That said, the status quo is unsafe for both the unhoused and the broader community and cannot be tolerated. If we merely clear encampments without a long term plan, we’ll continue to see more and more encampments spring up—and that’s bad for everyone. Those in the camps are more likely to be victims of crime and trauma, and we have more public spaces that can’t be safely enjoyed by the whole community. We know we’re facing diminished safety for drivers and pedestrians alike when our residents without residences are a growing number of those dying in traffic fatalities. But fundamentally, the pathway to safety is getting folks into housing and help get their lives back on track — and a punitive approach makes that job harder. 

Disclosure: Matt Wiltshire has donated to the Nashville Banner. Financial supporters play no role in the Banner’s journalism.

Addison Wright, a Nashville native, is a student-athlete (swimming) at UNC Asheville, where she's double majoring in Mass Communications and Political Science in the class of 2024.