Nashville Moves Toward Decriminalizing Homelessness
Nashville Moves Toward Decriminalizing Homelessness

Editor’s note: This story was produced in partnership with The Contributor, a street media paper in Nashville, and is part of “The Right to a Home,” a Community Based News Room (CBNR) series that examines homelessness issues across the United States. CBNR is a project of Law at the Margins, and the eight-part series is supported by a Solutions Journalism Network grant. The Nashville Scene is reproducing the story with permission, and the original version can be found hereVicky Batcher was a source for this story and also contributed reporting and writing.

Paul Arndt knows all about people experiencing homelessness having encounters with the police. He used to live in the recently closed encampment under the Jefferson Street Bridge, a place where many nonprofits frequent, giving aid to the homeless living there. 

Every so often, police will force these encampments to clear out, citing trespassing laws. But his first real issue with getting a citation happened when he was selling The Contributorthe biweekly street newspaper published in Nashville, in front of the popular downtown tourist spot Puckett’s Grocery & Restaurant.

Arndt is 65 years old and legally blind. Unable to stand for long periods of time, he had brought a camp chair to sit on while he worked. The owners of the business knew him and welcomed him in the months he had been selling there. But one day, a police officer came by and issued him a citation for obstruction of passageway. 

Arndt recounts that an officer came by and said: “I could arrest you for having that chair on the sidewalk, but I’m not going to. Instead I’m going to give you a ticket.” 

Nashville Moves Toward Decriminalizing Homelessness

Paul Arndt sells The Contributor in a camp chair in his typical spot. He was arrested for obstruction of passageway in the following weeks.

The following week, the same officer came by and arrested Arndt for sitting on a stool while selling his papers. This time, he said, “I’m thinking about arresting you.” Arndt said: “Go right ahead. I’m not doing anything wrong.” 

The officer then cuffed Arndt and took him downtown, where he was booked and locked in a cell. Three to four hours later, a woman with the police department came in and spoke to Arndt. She explained that he wasn’t allowed to obstruct the sidewalk like that, and she told him they would be releasing him.

“I felt picked on, being homeless and all,” Arndt says. 

What’s a Crime?

The city of Nashville is in the beginning stages of offering alternatives to the typical criminal justice system, but that doesn’t stop businesses or private property owners from making calls to the police about people experiencing homelessness — which leads to a lot of people being asked to move out of sight. 

Nashville Moves Toward Decriminalizing Homelessness

In Nashville, from January to October 2019, 464 people experiencing homelessness were arrested for criminal trespassing, according to data from Metro Nashville Police Department. Many of them got arrested on this charge more than once, making it a total of 724 arrests. That's an average of 2.6 arrests per day over a span of 273 days. In that same period, 37 people experiencing homelessness were charged with obstruction of passageway. 

At the Central Precinct, located in the heart of Nashville, Cmdr. Gordon Howey encounters people who are homeless often. He says criminal trespassing and obstruction of passageway are two of the most common charges seen among people experiencing homelessness.

“Hearing complaints come in over the police radio from citizens, trespassing tends to be something that occurs each and every day," Howey says. "Somebody calls in about someone in a parking garage, in a door, in front of a business, a stairwell, things like that. Not with every encounter with an officer is an arrest made, but there’s the potential for it."  

It's harder to collect data on people who are living in their cars. 

Vicky Batcher, co-author of this story, has lived in an RV for the past two years. She’s received some knocks on the window, with a “Sorry, you can’t park overnight here” from some local Metro officers, but for the most part, they’ve left those living in their cars alone. Places that are open 24 hours offer the best chance of being left alone, but they are usually far from much-needed services and food, she says. Walmart used to be a safe place, but some people have seen a crackdown on those living in cars parked in the parking lot — even the big-box store's own employees, Batcher adds. 

Nashville Moves Toward Decriminalizing Homelessness

Vicky Batcher stands by the camper where she lived for two years.

“The private security companies like the one that works for Walmart wouldn’t even let us park in their lot to do shopping without some sort of harassment,” she says. 

Batcher has encountered threats of being towed and jailed if she didn’t move the RV, which gave her anxiety attacks. She was evicted from a dwelling seven times in 25 years, and memories of being thrown out into the street after each eviction brought back the fear of once again having to turn to the streets.

“Threatening to have your only home taken away from you is a below-the-belt blow just for parking,” Batcher says. “It made me feel like an eviction all over again. I was scared and not sure what to do when I left. A person waiting to meet up in a parking lot is given more leeway than someone homeless.”  

How People in Poverty Experience Criminal Charges 

Part of Stephanie Harris’ job at Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency is working with people to get charges expunged from their record, thus bettering their chances of getting employment and housing. Having navigated the court system with many low-income folks, she says people enduring poverty experience the court system much differently than more affluent people. Money is owed for fines, court fees, even classes to be taken as an alternative sentence. It also costs to have those charges expunged later, if a person is eligible. Harris says she advocates for court outcomes to be the same across income levels. 

Nashville Moves Toward Decriminalizing Homelessness

“Let’s say the same shoplifting charge,” Harris says. “I go in with a [hired] attorney, and it’s my first charge. It’s a given that my attorney is going to ask for diversion, the expungement option, to be written into my disposition, so that if I complete probation successfully, I can just pay my fee and get it expunged. Somebody else might go in, and they’ve gotten arrested, and they’ve been kept in jail because they couldn’t bond out. Nobody is at home taking care of their children, so they plead guilty and get out and go home or go back to work.”

Having any guilty charges on your record can affect employment opportunities, Harris explains, and it’s not uncommon for hiring to be done through a computer system that rejects anyone with a guilty record, regardless of what kind of charge it was. 

Free Hearts, a local advocacy organization led by formerly incarcerated women, started a #ItsNotACrime criminalization of poverty campaign in response to some of the things they were seeing in the community. Gicola Lane, statewide organizer for Free Hearts, says she saw a man experiencing homelessness charged with theft of a grocery cart. He was sentenced to prison because the value of the cart was above the threshold for a misdemeanor. The group has been collecting feedback from people experiencing poverty to inform recommendations to local and state government. 

“A lot of people just say, ‘No one has ever asked me this before,’ ” Lane says. “No one has taken the time to say, ‘Is it fair?’ If someone has money, they can get out of jail, but because I don’t, I have to sit there?” 

Addressing the Problem: Homeless Courts

Some Nashville organizations are working toward addressing the repercussions of the criminalization of homelessness and poverty.

The Nashville office of Baker Donelson law firm is in the planning stages for a homeless court.

Nashville Moves Toward Decriminalizing Homelessness

In April of 2016, Nashville activists rallied on Public Square and marched through downtown to the Fort Negley homeless encampment in an attempt to prevent the imminent arrest or evictions of the residents.

The firm will draw from its work at the monthly Homeless Experience Legal Protection (HELP) pro bono hours with people at Room In The Inn, an organization that organizes shelter for and offers educational services to those living on the streets. This new homeless court will have a specific docket and meeting time that only deals with charges like criminal trespassing, possession, public urination and public intoxication, says Christopher Douse, chair of the Nashville Pro Bono Committee and coordinator of HELP for three years. 

“It’s serving a need,” Douse says. “We’re providing an avenue for what are typically these minor criminal issues that disproportionately affect the homeless population to come forward and be on a streamlined docket with a court that is understanding the population that’s coming before them, and working to clear those off with dedicated time from public defenders and the [district attorney] to work on it. Otherwise, they get lost in the mix of everything else that’s going on.”

Nashville would join Los Angeles, New Orleans, Chicago, Boston, Houston and a number of other cities in having a homeless court. The Nashville court is looking at best practices for a homeless court in New Orleans.

Katie Dysart, coordinator for the homeless court in New Orleans, says a best practice is to organize a community of contacts, from local housing and employment resources, to the local bar — it’s about adding value to the homeless community. She adds that the homeless court has lightened the general sessions court docket and gotten fines and fees traded for things like community service or maintaining employment for a certain period of time for people experiencing homelessness. 

“Many homeless individuals are barred from housing, employment or other basic daily activities given outstanding warrants that carry fines that they cannot pay,” Dysart says via email. “The Homeless Court has been able to get these folks into housing, employment and satisfy fines without monetary contribution.”

Crisis Treatment Centers: Alternative Holding Spaces to Jail

Mental Health Cooperative, an organization that offers mental health services to low-income Nashville residents, created a facility that seeks to keep people out of the criminal justice system to begin with. The newly built crisis treatment center serves mainly people on TennCare or without insurance, and offers an alternative to jail, where police officers can bring people having a mental health crisis, when they have become a danger to themselves or others. One of the drivers to building this center was to streamline the process for police, where they could get back on the street as quickly as possible.

Nashville Moves Toward Decriminalizing Homelessness

The Crisis Treatment Center allows for expedited police drop offs for people experiencing a mental crisis.

“Homelessness in and of itself, you could call crisis,” says Jacob Henry, supervisor of emergency psychiatric services at Mental Health Cooperative. “There’s just a lot of stressors that come with that: How am I going to care for myself? Where am I going to spend the night? Especially as we approach the winter. But looking at it from our standpoint, [we serve those who have] a psychiatric crisis. Sometimes, the crisis of homelessness can lead to a psychiatric crisis, or vice versa. There’s a connection there, and I think that’s why you see high rates of people with mental health issues that are homeless.”

Davidson County Sheriff Daron Hall says the reality of society is that the police are often called on to address mental health and homelessness. And it’s not always as severe as the threat of suicide or homicide, which is what the Crisis Treatment Center covers. When the sheriff’s department started looking into why people were repeatedly being put in jail, among the top reasons was people failing to do things that the criminal justice system asked them to do, such as attending a court date or meeting with a probation officer. When you fail to do those things, a warrant for your arrest is issued. If a police officer comes into contact with a person with a warrant, they have to arrest them, even if the charges end up being dismissed in court later — the Crisis Treatment Center isn’t an option at that point. But the Behavioral Care Center, which is slated to open in March 2020 and also staffed by Mental Health Cooperative professionals, will be.  

“I believe there’s going to be a need for our beds in this system, unfortunately, because the criminal justice system is asked to solve the mental health problems a lot of times,” Hall says. “It’s not a great thing, but that’s where we are.”

With the Behavioral Care Center, the booking room — the first step for someone taken into custody — will have a jail staff member and a mental health staff member. The people who qualify to be moved directly to the Behavioral Care Center would be charged with a misdemeanor — which is what 80 percent of charges are — and diagnosed by the mental health professional. Court, jail time, probation and all the fees that go along with it could be waived if a person voluntarily goes into treatment. Part of the plan is also to have a support system waiting when they get out, be that inpatient or outpatient care. 

“A lot of homeless people are arrested more than one time in a year, and more than one time in a month even,” Hall says. “Those are the candidates that we’re looking for. People who aren’t being served well at all by the criminal justice system. … It keeps happening because you’re doing nothing to help what’s driving the issue.”

These proposed solutions still call on police to make decisions to defer to other service providers or not. There’s still some interaction between the police and people who are homeless, often in an area outside of police specialty. 

Lindsey Krinks, an advocate for people experiencing homelessness and co-founder of homeless outreach and education organization Open Table Nashville, says proposed solutions to the criminalization of homelessness such as the Behavioral Care Center should prompt a larger conversation about the policing system in Nashville. She sees a need for including groups like North Nashville’s Gideon’s Army, whose members serve as violence interrupters and arrive to the scene of shootings. (See the Scene's recent cover story on Gideon's Army here.)

“When there’s a shooting, they’re on the scene, and the police are too," Krinks says. "But they’re able to mediate in a way that the police are not. We need the same thing for the mental health system, for situations of homelessness and poverty. Homelessness is not a criminal justice issue. It is an economic issue. Mental health issues are not a criminal justice issue. They are mental health issues. Public intoxication is not a criminal justice issue. It’s a public health issue.” 

Nashville Moves Toward Decriminalizing Homelessness

Krinks says a win for the community is the Nashville Outreach Team for Encampments, which came out of the encampment task force she was part of following the city's closure of Fort Negley, a longstanding homeless encampment in Nashville. This team can serve as first responders, alongside or instead of the police.

“When people see an encampment, they call the police, and instead of having the police be the first responders when there’s no instances of breaking the law other than trespass, [there could be a more effective response],” Krinks says. “We said it’s a best practice in other cities to have a homeless outreach team respond.”

Krinks continues: “I would like to see Nashville — and there’s a number of people talking about this and working toward this now — have a different kind of first responder that doesn’t just include law enforcement but also includes trained professionals, for certain calls. Certainly police are going to be needed in situations where violence is involved or weapons are involved.” 

While many of these solutions are in their infancy, Nashville is about to have more options than ever when it comes to helping to decriminalize homelessness.

But it’s up to the police and the community to use these resources thoughtfully — to change what justice looks like for those experiencing homelessness. 

Hannah Herner is a writer and media manager for The Contributor. Originally from Ohio, Hannah graduated from Ohio State University and served an Americorps service year in East Nashville before working for The Contributor full time. 

Vicky Batcher is a 56-year-old mother of twin boys, vendor and writer for The Contributor. She was homeless for seven years and recently got into government housing. She now enjoys the benefits of having her own housing.

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