COVID-19 Call to Action

Ask Mayor Cooper and the Metro Council to do more to protect Nashville’s homeless from COVID-19

Over the weekend, 119 positive cases of COVID-19 were confirmed at Nashville’s homeless shelters: 19 at the Fairgrounds and 100 at the Nashville Rescue Mission. Additional tests were described as “pending” and “indeterminate.” It’s crucial that we continue to put pressure on Metro to act NOW to ensure the safety of our friends on the streets and the broader Nashville community. 

ACTION: Email Mayor Cooper (mayor@nashville.gov) and Senior Advisor Mary Falls (mary.falls@nashville.gov) and click here to find your Council Member and add them to the email. 

Sample Email:

SUBJECT:  Metro MUST do more to protect homeless Nashvillians

Dear Mayor Cooper, Senior Advisor Mary Falls, and [Your Metro Council Member],

While Metro has taken some important actions to support and protect people experiencing homelessness in Nashville during this devastating pandemic, Metro can and must do more.

Specifically, Metro Nashville should:

1) Use a significant portion of the federal CARES Act Coronavirus Relief Funds to provide hotel/motel vouchers to people experiencing homelessness and to ensure the safety of Nashville’s most vulnerable residents including communities of color and people who are homeless, elderly, disabled, and living with chronic health conditions.

2) Follow FEMA guidelines for non-communal sheltering for individuals who are symptomatic, awaiting testing, and COVID-19 positive, as well as for high-risk homeless individuals (e.g. hotels, vacant dorms, nursing homes, etc.). Despite claims that the Fairgrounds provide “non-congregate” shelters, some guests continue to share areas like bathrooms, dining areas, and other communal areas. By definition, the Fairgrounds therefore is a “congregate shelter.” Providing non-communal sheltering would allow for Metro to receive FEMA funding for these services. Our sister cities like Memphis, Knoxville, and Chattanooga have already taken this approach, as have countless cities across the nation.

3) Commit to frequently re-testing shelter guests and staff at the Fairgrounds and the Mission to account for new cases and false negatives. Provide mobile rapid testing for those living in homeless encampments.

Thanks for everything you are already doing to support our fellow Nashvillians who are particularly vulnerable to the negative impacts of this pandemic, but we can and must do more. 

Sincerely,
[your name][your address or council district]

________________________

1. Email Mayor Cooper and other city leaders today! A sample email is below:

TO: mayor@nashville.gov, mary.falls@nashville.gov, jim.shulman@nashville.gov, jay.servais@nashville.gov, michael.caldwell@nashville.gov
SUBJECT: ACT NOW! Homelessness and COVID-19

Dear Mayor Cooper, Vice Mayor Shulman, Mary Falls, Dr. Michael Caldwell, and Chief Servais,

We are facing a dire public health crisis and must act now to ensure the safety of all Nashvillians, including people who are experiencing homelessness. Our neighbors without housing are often forced to congregate in groups to receive basic services like food and shelter. Many also have substantial health problems that cause them to be immunocompromised which creates a higher likelihood that they will need hospitalization. If they become infected with COVID-19, not only will the spread of the virus be difficult to contain, but it will also put further strain on critical hospital and ICU capacity in Nashville. We are deeply concerned about the health and wellbeing of our unhoused neighbors, our shelter systems, and the wellbeing of the larger community. We are all interconnected. For these reasons, we need your action now on these items:

  1. Make immediate emergency funds from Metro available to rent or purchase a facility that contains individualized rooms for people who show symptoms of COVID-19 and/or are awaiting test results. Sick shelters and facilities for isolation do not need to be housed in open spaces like Municipal Auditorium or the Fairgrounds where proper containment and distancing protocols cannot be followed and the safety of the guests cannot be ensured. Adequate facilities for sick shelters and quarantine/isolation include locations like hotels, motels, and vacant dorms or nursing homes.
  2. Create outdoor phone charging stations to allow people experiencing homelessness to call TeleHealth and emergency services and to safely remain in contact with outreach workers and other service providers. Metro should partner with businesses with outdoor power access, or look into covered, remote, solar-powered charging station options.
  3. Make the funding of affordable housing a priority in Nashville by dedicating at least $25 million to the Barnes Housing Trust Fund in this year’s budget. Not only are people are #UnsafeWithoutHomes, but national studies have shown that providing housing is ultimately less expensive than keeping people on the streets. 

We appreciate your efforts to ensure that all Nashvillians, regardless of housing status, are able to stay safe during this public health crisis.

Sincerely,
(your name)
(your address)


2. Email Governor Bill Lee and Lieutenant Governor Randy McNally today! A sample email is below:

TO: bill.lee@tn.gov, lt.gov.randy.mcnally@capitol.tn.gov, gillum.ferguson@tn.gov
SUBJECT: ACT NOW! Homelessness and COVID-19

Dear Governor Lee and Lieutenant Governor McNally,

We are facing a dire public health crisis and must act now to ensure the safety of all Tennesseans, including people who are experiencing homelessness. Our neighbors without housing are often forced to congregate in groups to receive basic services like food and shelter. Many also have substantial health problems that cause them to be immunocompromised which creates a higher likelihood that they will need hospitalization. If they become infected with COVID-19, not only will the spread of the virus be difficult to contain, but it will also put further strain on critical hospital and ICU capacity across Tennessee. We are deeply concerned about the health and wellbeing of our unhoused neighbors and the wellbeing of the larger community. We are all interconnected.

In Nashville, we have a larger concentration of people experiencing homelessness and we need your action now to make immediate emergency funds from the State available to rent or purchase a facility that contains individualized rooms for people who show symptoms of COVID-19 and/or are awaiting test results. Sick shelters and facilities for isolation do not need to be housed in open spaces like the Municipal Auditorium or the Fairgrounds (as city officials have proposed) where proper containment and distancing protocols cannot be followed and the safety of the guests cannot be ensured. Adequate facilities for sick shelters and quarantine/isolation include locations like hotels, motels, and vacant dorms or nursing homes.

We appreciate your efforts to ensure that all Tennesseans, regardless of housing status, are able to stay safe during this public health crisis.

Sincerely,
(your name)
(your address)


3. Email Metro Council members today! A sample email is below:

TO: councilmembers@nashville.gov
SUBJECT: ACT NOW! Homelessness and COVID-19

Dear Council Members,

We are facing a dire public health crisis and must act now to ensure the safety of all Nashvillians, including people who are experiencing homelessness. Our neighbors without housing are often forced to congregate in groups to receive basic services like food and shelter. Many also have substantial health problems that cause them to be immunocompromised which creates a higher likelihood that they will need hospitalization. If they become infected with COVID-19, not only will the spread of the virus be difficult to contain, but it will also put further strain on critical hospital and ICU capacity in Nashville. We are deeply concerned about the health and wellbeing of our unhoused neighbors, our shelter systems, and the wellbeing of the larger community. We are all interconnected. For these reasons, we need your action now on these items:

  1. Freeze all evictions, foreclosures, utility cut-offs (including water, electricity, internet, and cable), and the acrument of late fees and fines by continuing to encourage public entities like NES, Metro Water, and MDHA extend a grace period, a non-payment forgiveness policy, and/or a generous repayment timeline through the duration of this crisis. We also urge you to pass a resolution calling on private entities to do the same.
  2. Make the funding of affordable housing a priority in Nashville by dedicating at least $25 million to the Barnes Housing Trust Fund in this year’s budget.Housing is health care. Housing ends homelessness. Housing is a human right. Not only are people are #unsafewithouthomes, but national studies have shown that providing housing is ultimately less expensive than keeping people on the streets. 

We appreciate your efforts to ensure that all Tennesseans, regardless of housing status, are able to stay safe during this public health crisis.

Sincerely,
(your name)
(your address)


4. Donate Food and Supplies

Glencliff UMC and the Village at Glencliff are organizing food boxes that will be distributed by outreach workers across the city as safely as possible to our friends staying at camps and to our friends for whom finding food right now is hard or dangerous. All food and supply donations from the list below can be dropped off in the back of the building in Glencliff’s Fellowship Hall. They can also be shipped directly to Glencliff UMC (2901 Glencliff Rd., Nashville, TN 37211).

We’re doing our best to educate our friends on the best ways to stay safe right now and hope you can do the same in your community. Metro has created this website specifically for homeless service providers and this website of resources for people needing help.Please help us spread the word about these action steps and resources. We know that housing is health care and it is even more apparent now. 

In Solidarity, 
The OTN Team

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Take it Easy

By Susan Adcock, West Side Outreach

Larry had a hard time staying at the hospital. I got to where I’d take his boots with me so he couldn’t leave. Toward the end it worked but he was pretty sick by then and didn’t fight as hard. Some of us professionals were offended at this behavior — this refusal of free health care, and labeled him an idiot for leaving against medical advice. Others of us knew that he was losing the war with alcohol and a lifetime of trauma. He started going to jail when he was just seventeen. The hospital felt like jail.

A month ago, after six months of weekly or bi-weekly visits to the hospital for congestive heart failure, Larry coded in his hospital room. Later, the doctor told me that no one on the team believed he’d make it to morning but somehow he’d miraculously survived. The doctor called me himself after digging through Larry’s wallet for evidence that someone actually cared about him. 

“The next time, it’ll be different,” he said. “He won’t survive it. He needs someone to give him ‘the mom talk’. Is that something you could do?” 

“Oh definitely,” I said. 

The next morning I walked into Larry’s room and without saying hello I said: “Do you want to be buried or cremated?” 

Without hesitation he said “Cremated.” 

“What do you want done with your ashes?” I shot back.

There was a long pause then while he thought about it and finally he said: 

“You decide.” 

“If you leave it up to me you’re going to end up at a beach” I said. 

“Sounds good to me,” he said grinning. 

I  went on to do the “mom talk” wherein I explained all of the things Larry already knew about alcoholism and dying of congestive heart failure; including brain damage and the chances of lying around in a diaper for two years after a massive stroke. Sadly, all things I’ve seen happen. He then repeats what I already know, which is that the only thing that will extend his life, even for a few months is a place to live; an apartment with a lock on the door and a bathroom with a shower in it.  When he’s finished I apologize (not the first time) to him for not being able to find him a house sooner because we both know he is going to die any minute, with the next pint or the next cigarette, or the next time he goes without food for two days. It’s just a matter of time.  

A week later he was back in. The doctor called me again, again his heart had stopped, and asked if I could come to the hospital and help him make decisions for Larry. I was there in twenty minutes. It wasn’t looking good and I knew that because they let me stay in the room and hold Larry’s hand while a team of five people saved his life again. This took about nine and a half hours across a shift change. By the time he was stable, he had a respirator, a heated blanket and twelve different drugs going into his veins. 

Twenty hours later the doctor called again to say it wasn’t working. It was pretty clear he’d suffered some neurological damage and wouldn’t be able to survive off the respirator. A few minutes later I walked into his room for the last time. I laid my phone at his ear and we listened to the Eagles and Bob Dylan for close to an hour and a half as the monitor above his head wound down from critical to nothing. Two nurses came in with stethoscopes. They listened and looked at their watches and each other, until the very last beat of his heart and a beautiful, complicated, hilarious misunderstood human spirit flew away into the ether. 

This is the cost of homelessness. Not only a human life but hundreds of thousands of dollars as well. People so thoroughly traumatized they can no longer function – self-medicate, fall into a shame spiral and never get out because they’re denied housing, one of the most basic survival tools in the kit. It’s suicide and murder, all rolled into one and my job, it would seem, is to make it stop. It’s like being in a fist fight every day. Some days it works and other days I just have to hold a someone’s hand and be a witness.


Epilogue: There will be a short memorial service for Larry on Friday June 28, at 10 a.m. at “the rock” in Centennial Park. “The Rock” is a marker for the Trail of Tears located at the front of the park, just across from McDonald’s. I presented written evidence that Larry wanted to be cremated to the city of Nashville’s indigent burial program, but I’m not a blood relative and it wasn’t a legal document. They consulted their attorneys and refused. So in the true spirit of Larry and his well of stubborn resistance, I’ve raised the money and will see that he gets to the beach next week.

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2019 Point-In-Time Count

Open Table Nashville’s statement on the results from the 2019 Point-In-Time Count: Homeless advocates claim homelessness is on the rise in Nashville despite lower count

On May 8th, MDHA reported a 14% decrease in homelessness in Nashville due to a lower number from the annual “Point-in-Time” (PIT) Count, but this number was never meant to tell the full story of what is going on with homelessness in Nashville.

While MDHA’s final PIT Count number only found 1,986 people experiencing homelessness, we estimate that approximately 20,000 people are un-housed in Nashville—a number high enough to completely fill Bridgestone Arena. For instance, the PIT Count only found 62 people in families with minor children this year, but according to the Metro Nashville Public Schools, 3,368 homeless children have been identified so far in the 2018-2019 school year—up 5% from 2017-2018. That does not include children whose housing status is not reported, the number of adults in their their family, or children who are too young to attend school.

Due to the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s federal definition of homelessness, the PIT Count can only include people found in shelters, transitional housing facilities, outside, in a vehicle, or in abandoned buildings. MNPS and the Department of Education use a broader definition under the McKinney-Vento Act. As an outreach organization, we are on the streets day in and day out. We see new faces on the streets every week and know the names and stories of the people living without stable housing in Nashville who aren’t included in the count. We know the disabled couple who is couch surfing because they were evicted when a developer flipped their apartment. We know the mother and children living in a $250-a-week bug-infested motel while they wait on subsidized housing. We know the man who is in the ICU for a traumatic brain injury. We know the man who is in jail because he was arrested for trespassing for sleeping on private property. None of these people are included in MDHA’s PIT Count.

While we believe that homelessness will continue to grow in hidden and obvious ways in the Nashville area and beyond until we adequately address our affordable housing crisis, we are also proud of the ways homeless service providers, the Metro Homeless Impact Division, and others are working together to connect struggling individuals and families with housing in one of the tightest housing markets in the country. We are also making notable strides in decreasing homelessness among veterans and youth from ages 18-24 and that is something to be celebrated.

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Ubuntu: I am because we are.

By Mia Zera, OTN Spring Intern 2019

This word—ubuntu—has held significant meaning in my life. It is faintly stamped on the necklace I wear every day serving as a constant reminder of the kind of life I want to live, how I aspire to move through the world, and the foundational value in my relationships. It’s a South African philosophy that recognizes the common humanity in one another; that my pain, suffering, joy and celebration is bound up in yours. It is a principle that drove Nelson Mandela’s democratic movement following apartheid in South Africa and that fueled Desmond Tutu’s restorative justice movement known as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I also believe it is at the heart of the work Open Table Nashville is doing on a daily basis.

Being an intern, I’ve had the privilege of seeing ubuntu embodied in the many different facets of OTN. That said, I’ve spent the majority of my time doing outreach work. The outreach workers on staff recognize the dignity and worth inherent in each friend they meet experiencing homelessness by meeting them where they are at—literally. Physically, their body language is open and at an equal level, offering space for mutuality, commonality, and reflecting the humanity and dignity in one another. Self-determination is employed, recognizing our friends as experts of their stories and agents of change in their lives—when they are ready for change. Though challenging, this is how trusting relationships develop and flourish. It’s an empathic approach that says We are with you. We are frustrated with you at the lack of shelters available to keep friends warm on cold winter nights. We hurt and grieve with you when the city does not ask but tells you that you are no longer able to live in the place you call home, destroying the few precious belongings you have to your name should you fail to act fast enough. We are outraged with you at the fact that even though you might have served our country or literally helped build our city, there is still a lack of affordable places for you to live.

Once I began to take on these emotions—frustration, hurt, grief and outrage—I realized there was no turning back or unseeing the pain and suffering that is too often shrouded by the ever-growing attraction of Music City. That is why the work of OTN is so important—and urgent. This is a group of activists and advocates using their positions to amplify the voices of our friends on the streets. Our stories, our common humanity and our experiences of freedom are tethered to one another.

As my internship comes to a close, I can confidently say that never in my life have I been able to witness, experience and engage in the kind of radical inclusion, compassion and justice work OTN is doing. I think this work—and the philosophy of ubuntu—is so perfectly encapsulated in the following quote by Lilla Watson, an Australian activist, “If you are coming to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you are coming because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

Let us work together. OTN has helped me learn that working together also requires me to work within myself: staying in check with my privilege and biases and maintaining an ever-evolving posture of curiosity and positive regard for others. Working together also means that we (as our famous sign says) take care of each other, extending grace, patience and compassion where needed. The work I’ve been a part of through OTN as well as within myself this past semester have enhanced the meaning of ubuntu in a way I never anticipated, and I will forever be grateful.

Three Questions

By Joanie Sanders, OTN Spring Intern 2019

I began my internship at Open Table Nashville in January. Since then, I’ve been learning the ins and outs of outreach, homelessness, navigating the city (or, getting lost more often than not), and realizing every day that I still have so much more to learn.

I get to tag along with different staff members as they do outreach and get to know their friends along the way. I’ve had the privilege to listen to people, laugh with them, cry with them, and complain with them. Whatever they are feeling that day; I get to sit in it with them.

I have been asked these three questions a lot recently and wanted to share a few thoughts:

What do you do?
I never really know how to answer this question because I don’t have a set job description. The only thing consistent is the Open Table Nashville mantra, “Blessed are the flexible for they cannot be bent out of shape.” Every day we are on the streets doing what needs to be done. If someone needs socks or propane to keep them warm and dry do our best to get it. If someone needs a social security card or ID to get them ready for housing we can give them a ride and tag along as they get their documents. Things come up, emergencies happen, people are in serious need, so almost every day there is something I did not imagine doing that I end up doing. It may look like sitting in the ER with a friend or doing camp checks to make sure that everyone is okay. However it looks it never looks the same, and there is never enough done compared to the incredible need.

What is your favorite part?
My favorite part of working with Open Table Nashville is getting to be around people all the time. The conversations and human interactions I have with our friends on the streets every day is what I enjoy the most about being an intern. Whether it’s someone practicing their standup in the back seat of my car or someone telling me about their children as we wait at the social security office—I enjoy every moment of it and it fuels me to continue to do this work.

Why did they close Ellington? And where did everyone go?
This is a question I have gotten a ton recently and all I can say is that people do not want to see the camp. People do not want to acknowledge that we are failing people in our community by not having enough affordable housing. (This blog post goes a little more in-depth on the issue.) As for where people went, we know a lot of people moved to other parts of the city and continue to camp illegally because where else are they supposed to go? They had to take only what they could carry on their person that day and start all over again and find a new spot to feel safe and somehow find the supplies to do that. Just imagine being uprooted from your home right now and you can only take what you can carry—that is exactly how our friends felt.


This is some of the hardest and most rewarding work I have ever done. We’re just people helping people doing the best we can for all our friends. Throughout my internship I have been accepted and loved by all my new friends in ways I never thought possible. So, I encourage you to embrace our friends on the street because they will embrace you right back.