"My wife passed Sept. 3, '93, and I started using drugs in '94," George Finney tells the Scene. "I was bipolar and was really depressed, and I just lost it for a while." Eventually, the spiral of addiction landed him on the street, where he did what he could to survive.
"I did a lot of illegal things," he admits. "I shoplifted. That was one of the reasons I had a hard time finding a place, because when I finally did get clean, and had that moment of reality, I had made a mess of the past so bad that I couldn't get any place to even accept to me."
On Oct. 1 of this year, Finney found a place. With the help of a program called How's Nashville, he moved into his own apartment for the first time in 15 years.
Started in May as what Metro Homelessness Commission director Will Connelly calls "a grassroots movement" among several agencies, How's Nashville has worked to improve access to housing. That includes being proactive in approaching landlords and asking them to work with people to get into apartments at reduced rent — and, importantly, to look past what would usually be red flags.
"Often the barrier to housing is credit and criminal history," Connelly says, so his agency spends much of its energy trying "to build trust with the landlord and help them feel more comfortable."
Over the summer, How's Nashville was able to match 189 people with apartments in the span of 100 days. And though the placement rate has slowed a bit since that push, they've doubled their housing rate in the months since — up from about 25 placements a month to about 50 in October.
And the involvement doesn't end there. For the first time, the Homelessness Commission is paying for case management that follows a nine-month time scale. "The first three months is really intensive," Connelly says, helping ease the transition from the streets. For those who have been homeless for years or even decades, this can include basics like unplugging the toilet or using appliances. "Months four to six, you're trying to build a support network," Connelly says, "and options for where to go if that network starts to crumble."
With the holidays ahead, Finney, who is 56 and has no family in town, says, "It's really a sad time of year for me, kinda. ... I feel a little pain this time of year. It hurts a little bit. But hopefully things will get better."
And, he says, they already have. While he's only able to help someone with odd jobs at the moment, "it keeps some change in my pocket." (Because he doesn't have a work history, his disability payment is only about $630 a month.) He's trying to figure out what his next steps will be, and having his own place has made that easier.
"When you don't have a place to stay, a roof over your head, it's hard to focus," he says. But with a place of his own, "You can go in and just sit, and if you want to read the Bible or something, or meditate on what God wants you to do, you can go ahead and figure that out, you know what I'm saying?"
And his new apartment provides shelter from more than just the elements.
"I have self-esteem now," he says. "I know people nowadays care about me. Before I didn't have anybody. ... I was living in a negative environment with negative results. Everything was just going backward for me. Now I can see light at the end of the tunnel. I'm content. I'm happy."
As for the apartment itself, Finney says, "It's clean. It's just a one-bedroom, but it's kind of like a palace to me."
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