A Call to Action After the Storm

The views expressed below are exclusive to the writer, not any agency or organization with which the writer works or volunteers. In fact, many times, those places disagree with the writer.

“It’s still slick out there, don’t travel if you don’t have to,” is the mantra of politicians and news reporters about today’s weather.

But, just two days after a storm system dumped a seemingly unprecedented amount of snow on Metro Nashville, the city is ending its additional emergency sheltering of citizens who live outside. Citizens must contend for room at the everyday shelters that often fill early and/or have limitations that keep our neighbors from being or feeling welcomed.

Don’t get me wrong–emergencies don’t last forever. In political terms, they have “sunsets.” (Interesting terminology.) We are not supposed to expect Nashville to continue to shelter these individuals after the emergency ends. Otherwise, political logic argues it wasn’t really an emergency.

But, today these shelters are closing as snow and ice continues to block access to some of the encampments where our neighbors live in tents, of which it is often treacherous to access even in the best conditions. These shelters are closing as temperatures will continue to drop below freezing overnight. These shelters are closing as only five out of some nearly 50 Metro bus routes operate and when many restaurants and business where people normally warm up remain closed.

I think we can do better as a community. I encourage you to step up and ask the city to continue emergency operations.

People can often become frustrated with me because I remain skeptical and critical in times when praise is the most common. Who likes a Debbie Downer? And Nashville deserves praise for responding to this emergency. THANK YOU FOR GOING THE EXTRA MILE TO SAVE LIVES. It’s been a lot of work–I’ve seen it, been a small part of some of it, and know it is taxing and exhausting. Again, THANK YOU. But, I think we can do better as a community and I’m going to say so.

There is no silver lining to people’s lives being at risk. But, I am pleased that Nashville has again had the opportunity to see precisely how many of its residents are going without a home this winter. So much so that nonprofits had to beg congregations to open or stay open, the city HAD to open an overflow shelter because our current capacity is inadequate, the city had to open an overflow-overflow shelter, and then the city had to ask nonprofit organizations that don’t normally operate shelters to open more. And Metro employees, nonprofit organizations and volunteers, and regular neighbors stepped up! It was awesome.

While we thank Nashville for stepping up for a few days of an emergency, these neighbors are out there every night. Emergency operations should continue until it warms up and the snow melts, and Nashville should (must) earn even more praise by ending the crisis that leads to these cold weather emergencies–a housing market that is not affordable and is often discriminatory. Most of these neighbors are not living outdoors by choice or because anything of significance is “wrong with them.” They are out there because they simply cannot find a place they can afford to live in our great city.

Just a few days before the snow and ice hit, some out-of-touch Tennessee lawmaker decided it would be a good idea to propose an outright ban of affordable housing mandates by local governments. Not that he needs to–its not like municipalities like Metro Nashville, despite its housing crisis, are itching to implement them anyway.

What are we thinking, Tennessee? We need to assure affordable housing is available and open to the people who need it.

Let’s take the energy we used for this emergency to prevent future emergencies by promoting affordable housing, being compassionate and forgiving in our housing and not resorting to immediate eviction, and not being so awful as to say we want our neighbors to have homes as long as they aren’t beside us.

I love all of you who are already working on this issue. Maybe we can get a few more while we have some attention because of our snowy surroundings?





“…[W]e cannot house him simply because he is homeless.”

…”[W]e cannot house him simply because he is homeless.”

I recently came across this line while reading a rejection email from a Nashville service provider to which I referred someone. It was a particularly devastating line to me. 

Homelessness alone should be enough to qualify someone for housing. Recently, I shared a video I found that asked five-year-olds to draw what a person experiencing homelessness needs most. Every five-year-old drew a house.

Housing first is a new evidence-based model being used by cities around the nation–in fact, including Nashville. In this model, people are not expected to deal with their demons before moving into housing–but rather are put into housing so that they can finally deal with their demons. 

The How’s Nashville campaign has embraced this model, and so far this year, they have had a 75% retention rate of people they have moved into housing–including many of those that agencies have determined were “not ready for housing.”

But, the particular program this email is from is not directly involved with that campaign and has quite a set of criteria in place. The criteria is designed to find candidates who are most likely to succeed in living independently before they turn a certain age. For some people, like the one I referred, this might have required a little more support–more than this agency thought it could offer. 

The less devastating but more aggravating line in the email read:

“..not providing the level of support he needs to succeed is irresponsible on our part and could potentially cause more harm than good.”

I hear this often enough in the social services world, and it always puzzles me. I have trouble translating it. Unless you can offer him everything, you cannot offer him anything? No support is better than some support? He’s too sick so he should just stay outside? How is living outside with no hope, struggling every moment to focus on your survival rather than your personal growth, less harmful?

I’m just not sure I buy into it. Sure, demons are demons, and in battle, sometimes the enemy wins. You can move someone into housing and the demons could kick harder and result in someone falling back onto the streets or, worse, the demons can make her or him feel invincible in their own house and engage in fatal behavior. But, for the people I meet and work with everyday, the risk of death is just as real–or I would argue more real–on the streets as it is in their own home. While the risks in each circumstance are different, the potential outcome is the same. For me, though, I’d rather that if the enemy wins a battle, the person dies with dignity in her or his own home.

It’s true. There’s not enough affordable housing to go around. So, naturally, prioritization has to happen. My question to my city, and to all cities across the world, is where are our priorities? Since when are our priorities in who is most likely to succeed or who requires the least amount of risk?

Oh, wait, it always has been. In fact, that’s why many people end up experiencing homelessness in the first place–people demand the best qualified for everything and so rarely take a chance on someone. Thus, those who make mistakes, those who are more risky to help, those that may not prove to be successful are a big portion of those on the streets.

As homeless outreach agencies, should we pick candidates most likely to succeed? Or should we pick candidates most at risk? Or what?

I’d like to look at one example that means something to me. 

In the Bible, God typically did not pick the most likely to succeed. God took risks, on people like Moses, David, Saul–or on, let’s say, the entire nation of Israel. And those risks didn’t always immediately pay off. Time and time again, these people failed. Some became murderers. Some repeatedly turned away from God and went right back to the behavior from which God had rescued them. But, with God’s help, these lesser likely to succeeds did in fact succeed. 

Should we always choose the most likely to succeed? God didn’t. While we’re not God, maybe we should think about taking a risk. Because everyone–from most likely to least likely–deserves another chance to succeed.

(Jesse’s opinions expressed on this website are his own and not representative of the opinions of any agency where Jesse volunteers or works.)

Nashville Unhidden

I’ve been in Nashville for two years now. Those years were pretty intense and I kept most of that intensity to myself–for various reasons, including protection of my family’s and my privacy. However, two years later, I find myself reflecting on how much that time of struggle has really impacted me as a person. As I am working through that, I am reflecting on the only two times I chose to write “publicly” about what I was going through. The first is a piece I wrote for a street newspaper I volunteer with in my former city of Cincinnati and advertised to absolutely no one. The second is a piece I wrote and hid on a “blog” I hid in the deepest, darkest caverns of the Internet  (Tripod–it still exists!) and made people intentionally find.

I’m ready to unhide these writings from Nashville about my time in Nashville so far. Don’t worry, things have improved significantly for me over these past two years, but those writings don’t exist yet. In the meantime:

“I’m not what you think”

I’m a private person, even –  or maybe especially –  with my family. But I think it’s time for them to accept something about me which they choose to deny.

I guess I can’t blame them too much for denying it. My shield of privacy has kept me from professing this part of me to the world. But there’s no way they don’t know. It’s right before their eyes. With some of them, I’ve even mentioned it, but they’ve quickly dismissed it.

I’ve been involved in advocacy with this issue for quite some time, standing up for others like me who are ridiculed, bullied, judged, condemned and abused for who they are. My family attributes it to my general altruism, which makes it easier for them not to accept the truth –  that while I might be a nice guy, part of the reason I focus in this issue area is because I’m a part of it.

This writing belongs to Article 25. Read the remainder here: http://article25news.wordpress.com/2012/10/21/coming-out-to-my-family/

From the “blog.” Don’t worry,  I won’t make you go to Tripod:

“Good, you got of the house,” my brother told me as he came home and found the Target bag containing the dress pants I walked four miles to purchase for my job interview.

He’s been on that theme for a while: getting out of the house. I suppose he’s not the only one… all the ‘experts’ seem to agree that when you are battling unemployment it’s best not to wallow around in your sadness loathing your own existence.

But, that’s not really what I do when I am alone at ‘home’ all day. There’s usually very little wallowing.

I get inspired to apply for jobs online, to update my resume, to write articles, to find coupons for free food, to answer ChaCha questions in hopes of meeting the payment threshold before the end of the year.

But, more importantly than my productivity, I feel safe. See, I’m not sure how long I’ll have the option to stay at home, because I am constantly living with the fear that I might not have that home to stay in for much longer.

My brother’s a good guy, don’t get me wrong. But, he’d probably even admit he’s human. And humans die. Or, if they don’t die, they get pissed or self-righteous or find themselves struggling too much themselves to be able to worry about anyone else–even their own families.

Think I’m wrong? It’s already happened to me twice. The reason I’m with my brother now is because my mom and my dad both exercised their humanity.

If something were to happen with him, I’d find myself in a pickle, as the sugarcoaters say.

Not to mention when I go out of the house, that’s usually what makes me feel sadness and the need to wallow in my misery. I pass by nice places to eat, places to visit, things to buy… aka things I can’t afford to do.

The other night, I left the bar where we he took me to get “out of the house” and wandered around town. I found myself more depressed than I’ve been in a while. It wasn’t from drinking, because I was too poor to buy any drinks anyway; instead it was being in a social atmosphere and knowing how alone I really am.

So, please don’t mind me if I happen to enjoy staying in the house. I’m worried sometimes if I leave, I might not be able to come back. And without others around, it’s hard to feel alone, as odd as that might sound.

Woman Facing Homelessness: “I do not want a park bench dedicated in my honor.”

Tonight, I find myself thinking instead of sleeping. One of the things that is resonating in my mind is something I heard someone who is battling homelessness in Nashville say this week. The 60-year-old woman must leave her housing by the end of the month and right now she has nowhere suitable to go. Yesterday, I asked her how things were progressing and we got into a discussion about how she feels abandoned by Nashville.

Nashville has been doing a lot more recently to address homelessness. I’m a huge fan of the new How’s Nashville  campaign, which uses the evidence-based practices of housing first and assessing individuals under the “Vulnerability Index.” They’ve had great success recently, moving more than 100 people who are likely to die on the streets into permanent, supported housing. In meeting that county-wide milestone, they also helped the national campaign reach  a people housed milestone of 65,000.

While I have never had a great understanding of physics, I do know that when energy surges into something it has to come from somewhere.  My worry ever since this campaign launched was that some of that “new” energy for the “vulnerable” would come from Nashville’s efforts to prevent homelessness–either first-time or relapse.

See, someone who is  “housed” doesn’t need housing–not until they are on the streets.

The idea of living on the streets is not something my friend can accept.

“I wouldn’t last two days on the street,” she said. She has lived on the streets before and she knows its challenges. She has new ones of her own, like life-threatening anemia that often goes untreated.

But, because she’s not currently on the street, some agencies in Nashville associated with campaign are extremely limited in how they can help her. And while she has a serious medical condition, that alone is not enough to qualify her for prioritization under the “Vulnerability Index.”

“No one is more vulnerable than me,” she said. I’m not sure if that’s scientifically true, but I know it’s truly how she feels and it’s a valid self-assessment. I fear for her life if she ends up without a home. So does she, and her focus on survival is overshadowing her hope and altruism.

“I do not want to be a sacrificial lamb that paves the way for changes to help others in the future. I am very, very selfish about this. I do not want my death to benefit anyone. I do not want a park bench dedicated in my honor.” (This line haunts me.)

A bench to honor people who died on the streets was recently installed at Nashville’s Riverfront Park. It was named in honor of Tara Cole, who ended up on the streets because she developed a severe and persistent mental illness and was uninsured, and who was targeted by a group of people and murdered==pushed into the Cumberland River while she was sleeping. (Read more about this in my article in The Contributor out through 2 p.m. on August 28, 2013.)

My friend has always been known for stating her mind bluntly, and it is one of my favorite things about her. But, no, she’s not even a little bit selfish. She, like everyone who battles homelessness all around us, does not deserve to die.

I just wish there was enough energy to go around.