Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Homeless People Are Flood's Forgotten Victims

Posted By on Tue, May 4, 2010 at 2:58 PM

Tent city before the flood.
  • Tent city before the flood.
In a natural disaster, they say, all zip codes are equal. Be that as it may, the city's homeless people are likely to suffer more than most from our flood. Once the federal disaster aid arrives, they won't qualify for low-interest loans.

The tent city homeless encampment (pop. 140) was wiped out by the rain-swollen Cumberland River. Police say they tried to evacuate the residents, but some officials are worried that not all managed to escape to higher ground.

“I am concerned,” says Mike Turner, a Nashville fire captain and state representative. “What happened to them? Where did they go? All their tents and their encampments are gone. We may see some bodies floating up. Who knows?”

Turner himself plucked one homeless man from the treetops just above the engorged river. He says the man, who was saved by firefighters using a camping air mattress as a flotation device, might have been trying to rescue his dog when he became trapped himself.

There's good news from the city’s homeless coordinator, Clifton Harris. He says he believes all the tent city residents are safe. “I’ve just been with quite a few of them, and no one’s reported to me that anyone’s missing,” he says. Charles Strobel, who runs the city’s Room in the Inn shelter program, says he hopes they all “saw the water coming up and just ran as fast as they could.”

Already, Nashville’s homeless advocates are beginning to discuss what to do now that tent city is destroyed. Once the Cumberland recedes, the banks will be uninhabitable, Strobel says—"an environmental disaster" with pollutants washed ashore.

He says advocates may try to secure a piece of property for a new tent city, but concedes it’s not likely they could find any willing private landowner. Homeless people now are staying in Red Cross shelters, but once the shelters close, they’ll have no place to go.

“They could go to existing shelters like the Mission, but many of them choose not to do that,” Strobel says. “And of course if everybody who is homeless presents themselves, they wouldn’t all get a shelter bed. There aren’t enough. That’s just the reality.”

The sad truth is the city, which never dealt with its homeless problem in the best of times, almost certainly will fail to deal with it now. As the blogger Steven Samra writes:

My fear, which is shared by many other advocates in the area, is that instead of using this opportunity to establish a sanctioned and official Tent City, as city officials and homeless advocates have been talking about for years now, the attitude will shift to one of "homeless camp problem solved, next issue, please."

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