Op-ed by Megan Barry in the Contributor
For most of Nashville, cold weather is a hassle. Heating systems fail, pipes burst, and schools may have to close. But for far too many, cold weather is a life-and-death issue.
When temperatures drop, homeless Nashvillians face the potentially life-threatening danger of extreme cold. Last winter, Nashville experienced 45 nights with temperatures below 25 degrees.
In the wake of last year’s harsh winter, Nashville’s Metropolitan Homelessness Commission, of which I am a member, created a task force to develop a cold weather response plan. We learned last winter that we have to be strategic and work together as a city to keep our homeless neighbors alive, safe, and out of the cold. Bringing community leaders and service providers together, the cold weather task force spent the summer and fall months strategizing, culminating in the release of a Cold Weather Community Response Plan.
With the adoption of the Cold Weather Community Response, organizations including the Nashville Rescue Mission, Room in the Inn, Oasis Center, and Open Table Nashville are cooperating to respond to extreme cold weather conditions with increased shelter beds, transportation, street outreach, and nighttime canvassing. By identifying the level of severity of the cold weather each day during the winter, participating organizations are creating efficient and coordinated responses to keep the homeless community safe and out of the dangerous cold.
On January 8th, Room in the Inn sheltered 455 individuals—one of their highest numbers in their 29 years of serving the homeless community of Nashville. Congregations have stepped up and opened their doors to the homeless: 190 faith communities currently participate in Room in the Inn. Oasis Center is sheltering Nashville’s homeless youth, and the Nashville Rescue Mission is sheltering women and men. Metro police officers along with Open Table Nashville have been outside in the evenings canvassing all over Nashville to make sure our homeless neighbors get out of the cold. While we do still have some gaps in shelter service—such as shelter space for couples and homeless individuals with pets—our coordinated response shows that we have made significant progress since last winter.
Even with this progress in developing a cold weather plan, Nashville still faces the challenge of ending homelessness. There are still more than 6,000 Nashvillians living on the streets and in camps, including as many as 3,000 children.
We have made some significant progress in housing the homeless. Since its launch in June 2013, the initiative called How’s Nashville, comprised of the Metro Homelessness Commission, Open Table Nashville, Park Center, and other agencies, has housed 842 individuals and families with a housing retention rate of 77 percent.
Community-wide approaches are the key to success in efforts to make sure that every Nashvillian has a place to live and thrive. Collaboration is what makes it work: We must continue to ensure that our city’s homeless service providers are communicating and working together to create an effective and efficient service delivery model.
These efforts go only so far, however, if we do not have enough affordable housing or landlords willing to accept Section 8 vouchers. We need to develop creative, innovative, and sustainable approaches to funding the Barnes Housing Trust Fund. One approach involves dedicating a portion of taxes from short-term rental properties to the Barnes Fund. We can also learn from other cities—like Charlotte, NC and Salt Lake City, UT—that have significantly reduced homelessness through affordable-housing initiatives.
The question is not whether there are resources for affordable housing and ending homelessness in Nashville; the question is whether we decide to make it a priority, and I believe it should be a priority for the next mayor to identify a dedicated funding source for affordable housing going forward. That means no deaths due to being on the streets in dangerous cold. That means no disabled and/or elderly person being displaced from their Section 8 housing with nowhere else to go. That means that no family should have to leave Davidson County because they can’t afford a decent place to live in a safe neighborhood.
Megan Barry is an at-large member of the Metro Council and a candidate for mayor. She has served on the Metro Homelessness Commission since 2011. The Contributor invites candidates registered for city, state, and federal elections to submit content pertaining to homelessness and poverty for publication consideration to firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Originally published in the January 19-26, 2015 edition of the Contributor