They sleep on benches, under bridges, in abandoned buildings or at shelters when space is available. They are Nashville's homeless, whose numbers are estimated variously between 1,800 and 3,500. And as if they don't have enough problems already, many claim that the Metro Police Department is targeting them, effectively making it a crime to have nowhere to sleep.
"Ever since the new chief came to town saying he'd clean up the streets, I've seen it get worse," says Phillip Bailey, a two-year resident of Nashville's streets. "You can't even go in public places anymore. They'll kick you out...especially if you've got a bag on your shoulder."
According to Bailey and his companions Jimmy and Mike, in the old days, "as long as you didn't bother anybody, the police wouldn't stop you." These days, however, the men report that Metro is "watching real close. If you look like you're homeless, they talk to you." This, they allege, leads to citations for anything from walking across a parking lot to having an oversized backpack.
The objective evidence bears this out.
While Metro Police Captain Andy Garrett, who commands the department's Central Sector that includes downtown, where much of the local homeless population resides, says there's been no change in law enforcement against the homeless, he concedes that the department under new police Chief Ronal Serpas is making a well-publicized effort to serve more outstanding warrants and "check more people out." "That might be why there are more arrests," the affable officer notes.
Advocates with the Homeless Power Project, a 2-year-old group comprised primarily of current and formerly homeless Nashvillians, say that push is precisely what's led to increased arrests among the local street population. That's why they met recently with police brass, including Serpas and Garrett, as well as representatives of the Nashville Coalition for the Homeless. The goal of the meeting was to raise concerns about the criminalization of homelessness in Nashville.
According to several people who attended the meeting, Chief Serpas made it clear that it's his duty to enforce the laws on the books. But advocates like Kevin Barbieux, a 22-year resident of Nashville who's lived on the streets off and on (he recently found an affordable place to live), say enforcement is a key issue. "The biggest problem is that there's too much subjectivity as far as the laws and how they're enforced," he says. "The cops differentiate between co-eds sunning themselves in the park and a homeless guy lying down under a tree with a backpack under his head."
Homeless advocates say they left the meeting with Serpas feeling optimistic, with all sides trumpeting the "positive relationship" forming between the police department and Nashville's homeless advocates. At the meeting, the chief recognized that only a small percentage of homeless people cause disturbances, just as only a small percentage of police officers harass the homeless. He also said he was willing to provide better training for Metro officers to ensure fair enforcement of laws against the homeless and homed alike. "I was very impressed with [Chief Serpas]," says advocate John Zirker, himself a former resident of Nashville's streets. "I believe he comes from the heart.... It's not him who's making these laws; it's the Metro Council."
Since Serpas gracefully and persuasively passed the buck on to the council, the Power Project has redirected its efforts toward City Hall. Matt Leber, a group organizer, says it is now seeking sponsors for legislation designed to keep disorderly conduct citations from being used as a blanket tool to arrest the homeless. Offering copies of citations showing that homeless citizens were written up for "obstructing a wall" with a backpack, "lying on a stone bench at Riverfront Park" and "blowing snot out of nose onto sidewalk," Leber says city ordinances need to be tightened so that disorderly conduct citations are limited to "disorderly conduct-related actions, not poverty-related actions."
Vice Mayor Howard Gentry, who serves as president of the Metro Council and says he's been involved with homelessness issues for a long time, isn't so sure laws need to be changed just yet. "Before I would personally look to change the law, per se, I would first make an attempt to change the sensitivity of law enforcement agencies in dealing with the homeless," he says.
Gentry, then, passes the buck back to the cops. But when made aware of the mutual finger-pointing, he hastens to pledge a bureaucratic huddle. "If the chief and the administrative end of the police department feel the way that they do and I feel the way that I do, then we need to come together and talk about it," he says.
Perhaps Mayor Bill Purcell's Task Force to End Chronic Homelessness will provide just the forum for such a conversation. Initiated last December, Hizzoner's task force has a hefty charge: "to develop a [10-year] plan during the next five months that will establish a blueprint for ending chronic homelessness." The committeecomprised of heavyweights from Metro, the private sector and from social service agencieswas named in April, and it will hold its first meeting this Thursday. Interim director of Metro Social Services, Dorothy Shell-Berry, chairs it.
But progress so far has been limited, to put it charitably. For starters, at press time no agenda had been sent to task force members, nor had a schedule of meetings been released. (Shell-Berry says they'll develop the schedule at the first meeting and that the five-month deadline isn't firm.) With so many big shots on board, it'll be rare to get everyone around the table at once, and some task force members are expected to miss the first meeting. Finally, no one thought to put any actual homeless people on the homeless task force, an embarrassing oversight that has since been remedied thanks to the diligence of some local homeless advocates.
Kevin Barbieux and Howard Allen will provide the homeless perspective at the meeting table, and for right now they're withholding judgment on the task forcesort of. "I have very strong doubts about this, and it seems more like political posturing to me," Barbieux says.
Allen is more circumspect. "I'm looking forward to going Thursday, but I hope when we go they let us talk," he says, noting that he and Barbieux would probably need bus passes to get to the Vanderbilt meeting site and that he's missing work to attend. "I have to observe [the meeting]. I don't want to pass judgment before seeing what's going on."
Who knows? Maybe Thursday's task force meeting will unleash a flood of innovative, interdepartmental solutions to the problem of homelessness in Nashville. But if it turns out to be just another dry government meeting, perhaps the afternoon will be more insightful. That's when homeless members of the Power Project will don uniforms and clean up the Riverfront Park trash left by tourists in town for Fan Fair. They're doing it Thursday and again Sunday to call attention to the crackdown on homeless people that they say occurs during tourist season generally, and Fan Fair in particular.
Such is the nature of the conflict between Purcell's attempt to revitalize downtown and his stated goal of ending homelessness. "They're trying to make downtown a playground, but for the longest time nobody cared if the homeless were downtown," Barbieux says.
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