The Downward Spiral of Homelessness—And How to Break It

By Samuel Lester, Street Outreach & Advocacy Coordinator

Homelessness is the crossroads of some of society’s most difficult problems: poverty from low wages and unemployment, lack of affordable housing, over-criminalization, childhood abuse, domestic violence, unavailable health and mental health care, and substance abuse. Billy, for example, was alternately abused and neglected by his parents. In doing vulnerability assessments with the unhoused, this is frequently where their life story begins. In addition, Billy suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car accident which made it difficult for him to maintain his job. He lost his car and most of his possessions trying to rescue his girlfriend from addiction, and lost even more once on the street.

It is important to distinguish the triggers of homelessness from other complicating issues. For half of the unhoused, the “trigger” that begins the homeless spiral is economic often combined with lack of family support. In a study from not long after the “great recession” by the Houston Coalition for the Homeless, the two most common triggers of homelessness were loss of a job (35%) followed by bills higher than earnings (15%).

Triggers of Homelessness

(from the Houston Coalition for the Homeless)

Today, rising rents, lack of affordable housing, combined with stagnant incomes especially for low-wage earners, mean that bills higher than earnings have probably replaced unemployment as a cause. In Billy’s case, the trigger was trauma and loss of a job, and once unhoused, Billy began an all too frequent spiral down into homelessness.

The Downward Spiral of Homelessness

In the year I did outreach with him, Billy lost his ID several times, was robbed multiple times, was beaten up multiple times. There is no safe place to lock belongings, and no safe place to sleep. Not everyone’s homelessness is triggered by trauma, but virtually everyone’s experience of homelessness is traumatic. Billy cycled through depression after depression, and struggled with alcohol, but getting mental health care and substance abuse treatment was not easy. Nor was it sufficient when he would just return to the street and to his depression. When I first met him, he was literally carrying a rope looking for a tree to hang himself. 

Street trauma pushes people further into homelessness, but criminalization for acts necessary to daily life pushes them even further down. Billy, like many on the street, was cited and arrested over and over for minor misdemeanors like criminal trespass—there is no safe and legal place to sleep on the street—and for public intoxication. Unlike drivers, the unhoused get no breathalyzer test. If the police say you are intoxicated, something they rarely say for tourists well over the limit, you go to jail. It is one of many offenses people are charged with when sweeps are made prior to major events like the Country Music Awards in Nashville. Billy was forced out of camps and sleep spots over and over. People living on the street rarely get more than a few hours of sleep. They sleep with one eye open. They often sleep cold or wet. And they wake up to begin another nerve wracking day exhausted and often in pain from sleeping on concrete.


We succeeded in getting Billy a voucher for housing, but he was arrested and in jail when he was due to pick it up. I spoke with him late one Sunday evening after he got out. He was excited and hopeful to have a chance to get out of the hell of street life. It seemed that the clouds of depression might finally lift. Just after we talked, he crossed Dickerson Pike at night in the rain to get back to his camp and was struck by a car. In Billy’s case, rather than just having steel pins in his legs, replaced hips, or persistent painful back problems (as happens to many of our friends on the streets), after 6 days in a coma, he was taken off life support. But his death was not predestined. The downward spiral can be broken.

Breaking the Spiral 1: Affordable Housing

What can we do to break the spiral? There is no state in the country where a minimum wage job is sufficient to afford an apartment.  In Nashville, you would need 3.6 minimum wage jobs to afford the average one bedroom apartment. Supporting a higher minimum wage is key for all workers, but supporting more affordable housing is also key. Nashville has more than 23,000 people experiencing homelessness, including 8,000 children, a number that is growing by 30% per year. Nearly 20% of the city lives in poverty. For every $100 rise in rents, homelessness increases 15%. Nashville gives hundreds of millions of dollars to private developers to build boutique hotels and luxury condos, yet little to build affordable housing. We are thankful Mayor Barry gave $10 million to the Barnes fund last year, but this will build a tiny fraction of the needed units. To put this in perspective, the city just granted $14 million to build a hotel’s private water park. Where are our priorities?

Breaking the Spiral 2: A Safe Place for those in Homelessness

If we want to break the cycle of homelessness, safe places must be found for the unhoused. Living directly on the street is dangerous and exhausting. For Billy, it meant continued depression and anxiety as he was driven from place to place around the city, and it led to his being beaten up multiple times. The unhoused in Nashville frequently avoid the shelters for many valid reasons: 1) the hours make it difficult for people to get a bed and work a job that goes to 5pm or beyond, 2) couples and people with pets cannot stay together at shelters, 3) many people report that shelters are loud, dangerous, and destabilizing, 4) people experiencing mental problems feel especially uncomfortable. One possibility would be for churches to open their grounds to shelter the unhoused. Green Street has led the way, and we hope others will follow. Open Table Nashville is building a tiny home village for the medically vulnerable, but few of the unhoused have a safe place to sleep. We advocated for the city to create authorized camps, but so far without success. Nashville needs to do more. We are thankful that the city began opening emergency cold weather shelters this past winter, and are hopeful they will continue to do so.

Breaking the Spiral 3: Ending Unconstitutional and Destabilizing Criminalization

Unnecessary and unjust criminalization makes homelessness worse, and deepens the cycle of homelessness.  Billy’s run ins with police, rather than making him or the community safer, pushed him further into homelessness, causing him to lose possessions, an opportunity for housing, and nearly his sanity. Although the district attorney’s office has said they will not prosecute people for quality of life “crimes,” the police continue to cite and arrest people. Citing or arresting people for sleeping, resting, or “blocking a passageway” results in unpayable fines and court costs, lost or stolen possessions either at the jail or from their camp while in jail, removal of pocket money for “jail costs,” and increased depression and anxiety. Even when not cited or arrested, the unhoused are told over and over they must “move along” or face consequences. In addition, we have heard multiple accounts of police slashing or taking tents away from unhoused people living in camps, leaving them exposed to the weather, and destroying efforts of church groups and others who spend time and money to provide tents. Driving people out of one place, with no housing as an alternative, only pushes them into another part of the city where they are subject, in a short time, to being driven out again. Outreach workers lose contact, prolonging any attempt to get people into housing. Putting peoples’ lives in a blender destabilizes them in every way, and prolongs homelessness and makes everything worse.

Breaking the Spiral 4: Care rather than punishment

Billy was repeatedly arrested for public intoxication, but jail did nothing for his addiction. Another of our friends was arrested over 360 times before he died, and those arrests did nothing to end his addiction. And while jail was always available to him, treatment options were difficult to come by. There are few 28 day treatment beds if you don’t have money. Nor is mental health treatment much easier to obtain. Jails have become warehouses for the mentally ill. The Davidson County jail has become the largest mental health “facility” in Middle Tennessee. Some 30% of inmates suffer mental health problems, and are mostly in for misdemeanors (the same is true of the Shelby County jail in Memphis). Yet, in Nashville at least, people typically don’t get treatment until they have been in jail for around a month. Even if they are taken in with their own prescription medicines in hand, they are not allowed to take them, presumably for fear of unknown problematic interactions. As many are in for shorter periods, this increases the likelihood they will be released to the streets off their meds, making problematic episodes more likely, and increasing the potential for rearrest. Nashville needs more mental health and addiction recovery programs, and housing for those getting out to support their recovery.

Breaking the downward spiral of homelessness is not impossible. Nor is it as expensive as keeping people in homelessness. Multiple studies have shown that providing permanent affordable housing costs some $14,000 per year, while criminalization, hospitalization, and other costs run over $35,000 per year. Ending homelessness saves some $21,000 per year per person. With more than 23,000 people including more than 8,000 children experiencing homelessness in Nashville, we could save $483 million per year—enough to build enough affordable housing for most of the unhoused out of ONE year’s savings. We hope you will speak with your council person about Nashville’s misplaced priorities and demand that more affordable housing be built, and that more money be found to help keep people who already have housing, especially families, in place. The insanity and injustice of persecuting people from camp to sleep spot to camp around the city must be stopped. We can save far more than money.