Brookemeade Homeless Camp

A cleanup at Brookmeade Park, where a large encampment has frustrated neighbors

The Metro Council delayed a bill last week that would fund surveillance cameras in parks where homeless encampments exist. Days later, members of the council received a curious invitation.

“In discussions with Social Services/MHID and Parks, we thought it might be helpful to set up opportunities for Council to visit and observe some of the homeless encampments in our Metro Parks,” reads an email to Metro councilmembers from the mayor's office. “We recognize we have requested a significant amount of funding in recent weeks for supporting this work, with some legislation still pending. We invite you all to come and meet with Metro employees and service providers joining us doing work on the ground.”

Councilmembers quickly took to social media to lambast the invitation. A couple even tweeted out an email from Vice Mayor Jim Shulman that criticized the tours and noted that Mayor John Cooper wouldn’t even be attending.

The deferred resolution was a request to use $1.1 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding to purchase equipment like excavators, trash trucks and, most controversially, dozens of cameras for use in parks where camps currently exist. The Metro Council Budget Committee approved several other resolutions related to services for people experiencing homelessness but decided to delay that item for another meeting.

“We are watching community after community around this country use their ARP dollars … to address urgent needs, including housing,” says District 19 Councilmember Freddie O’Connell. “And to me, implementing surveillance technology in public parks is not the urgent community need.”

Colby Sledge of District 17 says he felt a “mix of surprise and disgust” by the invitation, and called the tours tone-deaf. He says one of the tour sites, a park next to Casa Azafrán on Nolensville Pike, doesn’t even have a camp. There were issues at that location involving people experiencing homelessness, including “some issues of violence,” but he says working with Metro Social Services and other organizations helped “reduce the activity that, quite frankly, was hurting other people” at the park. (He adds that there’s already a camera at that location.)

Sledge says many councilmembers are bemoaning the departure of Judy Tackett, the longtime director of the Homeless Impact Division. The mayor eventually appointed Office of Emergency Management Chief Jay Servais as interim director of the HID — that decision too faces some scrutiny.

Sledge compares Servais to a “field general” and says that “from a logistic standpoint, he's able to take those really high-level looks at things and try to allocate resources where they're most needed.” Sledge says that’s useful for endeavors like setting up cold-weather emergency shelters, which are now in operation until March 31— but still, “he's not an outreach coordinator.”

O’Connell hopes the new director becomes someone who picks up the work Tackett started, especially with the use of data to coordinate services in Davidson County.

“My hope is that we move pretty quickly to someone who has that same mindset of data-driven housing, first principles,” says O’Connell.

Sledge and O’Connell have also voiced frustration about the lack of status update for a project that would provide permanent supportive housing — that is, housing units with supportive services like health care and counseling — for people experiencing homelessness. The project is slated to create 112 units at 505 Second Ave N. and was scheduled to be completed by the end of 2021.

O’Connell says he’s spent months asking about the project but “cannot get a publicly documented reason for the delay.” He also shared a pair of emails with the Scene wherein he asks the mayor’s office about the status of the project and is told by a staffer that she will ask about it.

“There's no excuse,” says Sledge. “People should be moving into that permanent supportive housing right now. And instead they haven't even broken ground.”

Sledge says that several councilmembers as well as Vice Mayor Shulman have experience with housing people and working with the unhoused community, but the mayor’s office doesn’t seem to want to take advantage of that knowledge. In some ways, at least on homelessness issues, there seems to be a divide on this issue between the council and the Cooper administration.

“Council-mayor relationships always sort of are pendular,” says Sledge, though he notes that some councilmembers seem to be particularly frustrated. “Instead of having a collaborative relationship, there is this almost adversarial relationship where councilmembers are just basically told — without being consulted or even just advised — what the thinking is.”

“I'm not sure how [the mayor’s] approach leads us to the goals that I think a lot of councilmembers are pursuing right now,” says O’Connell.

O’Connell has also filed legislation to create an independent Department of Housing and Homelessness, which he says will allow for greater coordination between services providers. The mayor’s office has previously pushed back on that claim, saying the current structure — such as Homeless Impact Division operating under Metro Social Services — has helped provide valuable assistance to people experiencing homelessness, and also pointed to success in housing hundreds of people since this year.

Of course, it’s not just elected officials who are frustrated about the tours. The nonprofit Open Table Nashville — which conducts outreach to the homeless community as well as other services — also criticized the tours in a statement (which they tweeted), as well as the request for cameras and demolition equipment. They requested councilmembers not attend the tours.

“If Mayor Cooper is truly committed to providing housing for our friends in the lowest income brackets, he would put his energy into beginning construction on the 80+ units of low-income housing just north of downtown that was promised over two years ago,” the organization says in the press release. “We also want to see the Mayor’s Office invest $10 [million] more for permanent supportive housing for the residents of encampments instead of ripping apart the only homes they know.”

Andrea Fanta, a spokesperson for Mayor Cooper, tells the Scene: "The cameras are intended to protect unhoused individuals by detecting and deterring possible criminal activity that victimizes unhoused neighbors who are already vulnerable, including drug sales, and have been used successfully in Metro Parks for many years. The Mayor’s office invited interested councilmembers to visit three Metro Parks where unhoused residents are known to be sheltering to help in understanding the intended use of the proposed funding and the installation of cameras in particular. Staff from Metro agencies will be present to answer questions, and all visits will be conducted in a manner respectful of the individuals who may be present in the encampments."

Fanta added that "these visits are similar in concept to other visits by Mayor’s office staff and councilmembers to better understand community needs and initiatives. Such visits are common. ... It is unfortunate that the nature and purpose of these information-gathering visits have been misinterpreted. We intend to remain focused on developing and implementing a range of policies to meet this issue and assist those in need."

She adds that the purpose of the visit to Azafrán Park is to focus on the camera currently in place there: "Our belief is that it is effective without being overly intrusive. But visiting the site will give councilmembers a sense of its location and use and possibly inform the discussion of additional cameras at other sites."

Update: The mayor’s office provided further clarification on the permanent supportive housing project.

Fanta writes: “The previous design had 81 units in a nine-story building, a limited number of one-bedroom units, a design that featured windowless walls, with no real greenspace or viewshed amenities, and extremely limited parking. A redesign was pursued to add more and better units (with more one-bedroom units rather than efficiency units), increase the number of windows, and to orient the location closer to the river with an adjacent park and greenspace — all within range of the original cost.

“It is anticipated that construction will begin in summer 2022.”

She adds that "the mayor updated the district councilmember regarding the redesign and reorientation at a meeting on Sept. 15."

O'Connell says he did meet with the mayor, but "no date was given" for the project's completion.

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