What does it mean to be "homeless"?

While there are many stereotypes of people experiencing homelessness, the first thing to recognize is that the vast majority of people who become homeless do so for a short period of time. People find themselves without a job, without enough money for a deposit for housing, or in crisis and may live with a friend “couch surfing,” in their car, or in a motel for a while. They often regain housing quickly or at the very least never get counted in the annual point in time counts which tend to be best at finding people in shelters and missions. On of the more dangerous aspects of laws that punish people for resting, for receiving food, or other activities protected as a part of our right to life and liberty, is that they often push people who are economically vulnerable or briefly homeless deeper and deeper into poverty and into chronic homeless.

While the stereotype of the older male often comes to people’s minds, in fact there are millions of children and youth who are homeless. The traditional count determining who is homeless is called the “Point in Time” or PIT count taken on one of the coldest days in January. It provides a fairly accurate count of who is staying in shelters, but misses many people who may be camping out rough, using what little money they have to stay on a cold night in a hotel, or are sleeping in cars, storage units, or at a friends. How inaccurate is the PIT count? While the 2013 PIT counts showed there were some 610,000 people experiencing homelessness, the school districts reported some 1.3 MILLION schoolchildren to be homeless, the vast majority of whom were not living in shelters.

How many people are homeless in Nashville?


There are over 23,000 people experiencing homelessness in Nashville over the year. Unfortunately, official counts rely on a supposedly “average” one-night count called the Point-in-Time (PIT) count which underestimates homelessness by an order of 10. This count, done in January on one of the coldest nights of the year, found 2,154 people in 2015. But some 1000 people were housed by Nashville partners in 2015, meaning that we should have seen that number drop to 1,154—instead 2,365 were found in 2016 (a 105% increase even the most pessimistic think unlikely).

How do we arrive at over 23,000? Start with number of children in Metro schools, officially over 3,000, but according to Catherine Knowles, the supervisor of the homeless program there, because families fear to register as homeless, the true number is over 8,000 children. And that doesn’t include their some 4,000 parents or children too young or out of school living with the families. Then 12,112 people stayed in shelters or transitional housing in 2015, some 34% more than the year before. But these numbers still don’t count those who never access shelters or the mission. If we add campers, rough sleepers, and others who never go to the mission, and subtract out children in families who were found there to avoid double counting, we find over 23,000 experienced homelessness in Nashville in 2015.
Though some would like to focus on the chronically homeless, those without housing for a year or more, or those living literally outdoors, the one-night PIT count is even more subject to error than the yearly estimates. Some would say that people often transition out of homelessness, but this applies equally if not more to the PIT count, which is blind to so many, as to the yearly count, and they would still have lived in homelessness for part of the year. For most of the unhoused, what is really temporary is how long they fit in the official definition of homelessness. If someone moves into a hotel for a while until they exhaust their income, they would no longer officially be considered homeless for that period. If they lived with a friend or family member for a period, they would “disappear” from the rolls. But many will be back on the streets soon, and many in days if not months.

There are not enough shelter beds in the area to house the Nashville homeless population.

What triggers homelessness?

loss_of_job_pieWe have to distinguish between the causes that lead people to become homeless in the first place from the causes of why people remain homeless. This chart from the Houston Coalition for the Homeless does a great job of summarizing why people likely become homeless in the first place (numbers exceed 100% because of multiple causes). Note, the stereotypes often spoken of,  alcohol and drugs for example (9%), or psychological problems, are actually fairly small. Many of these problems get worse the longer one is homeless though. Still, many, many people who have no permanent home do not abuse drugs and alcohol, and many, many have few severe psychological problems. And one should remember that many people in homes have both as well.

Of course, longer term causes of homelessness are more complicated, but the one essential component they seem to share is loss of support circles. Either fleeing bad home situations, fearing unsympathetic family reactions, or having lost friends and family due to distance or other causes, people find themselves without shelter, and often their problems multiply from there, not infrequently compounded by anxiety and depression.

But beyond the personal causes of homelessness, there are the even longer term societal causes. In the 1960s and 70s, the US devoted a fair number of resources to try to house and care for those on the street. In the 1980s, funds for these purposes were dramatically cut. Here is a good overview of that disaster: Homelessness in America . Obstacles to reentry to society after conviction even for minor drug offenses—”check box” roadblocks to jobs, housing, food support, and civic participation—have meant that homelessness is the only choice for those leaving prison without family or other connections. A failure to keep the minimum wage on a par with inflation means that many are caught in cycles of debt that often break down into homelessness. And finally, loose money policies and deregulation aimed at the housing market, along with tax credits aimed at the middle class, have inflated housing prices, driving rental prices higher and higher, while gentrification has often priced housing out of reach in areas once predominately low income.  None of these deeper causes is inevitable–policies could be put in place to fix these problems. Many of them would actually save taxpayers money, as it costs far more to criminalize the homeless than to help them.

Why is jail/criminalization of the homeless wrong?

People who are homeless have very little money. If you have no money, you cannot pay rent and can’t get a hotel (or only for a brief time). Everyone has a right to exist—to rest, to eat, to use the restroom, to walk and sit on public properties, and to sleep. Yet the homeless are often harassed or arrested for these very activities with the thought that this will drive them away. In fact, there is little evidence that it does. But this harassment does make their lives worse and makes it more difficult to get out of homelessness.

Nashville has virtually no public restrooms, and though bar patrons are as likely to urinate in public, they at least have access to the restrooms of the bars, restaurants, and stadiums they attend. Only the homeless have no place to go and very little choice about where they sleep, rest, or use the bathroom. They also know if they give in to pressure and go someplace else, they will face the same cycle of harassment. Once ticketed or arrested, the homeless can’t pay an attorney or fines if they are levied, so they often end up in contempt of court with another fine they also can’t pay, or with jail time. All of these events cruelly and unnecessarily wreck peoples lives with harassment and worry, and make it  more difficult for the homeless to get back on their feet.

But besides the personal cost, the taxpayer foots the bill, not only for the police who, though they may not want to, are expected to harass people instead of helping them, but for the court costs, attorney’s fees, and sometimes jail time. Multiple misdemeanor offenses for sleeping or sitting in public, especially with a contempt of court citation, can add up to a felony offense, and then it becomes very difficult to find a job, as many employers won’t hire you with a felony offense even if it arises out of only minor offenses. Just getting around the city to deal with the courts takes time and money. “We learned that you could either sustain people in homelessness for $35,000 to $150,000 a year, or you could literally end their homelessness for $13,000 to $25,000 a year,” – Philip Mangano, former National Homeless policy Czar to President Bush and Obama. http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2012/mar/12/shaun-donovan/hud-secretary-says-homeless-person-costs-taxpayers/

What is "housing first" and why is it a better approach to helping the homeless?

“Housing first” means getting people off the streets and into housing first, then providing help to deal with the other problems they may have. Housing first is better because it works. Although it might seem like trying to provide jobs, medical care, therapy, or addiction counseling as a condition of housing might incentivize change, in fact homelessness makes progress in everything else much more difficult.

Countless studies have now shown that we must offer housing first, not last, if we want to help people out of homelessness. An immediate connection to permanent supportive housing can ensure that over 80% of homeless individuals remain housed, even among clients with severe substance abuse and mental health conditions.

The bottom line is that it is just too difficult to battle addiction, take care of serious physical and mental health conditions or find steady employment while simultaneously battling homelessness. Contrary to popular opinion, these things are not precursors to housing. Instead, they stem from the safety and stability that comes from having a permanent home in the first place.” (from 100,000 Homes on Housing First)
Moreover, studies have also shown that housing first is less expensive than other solutions. ”We learned that you could either sustain people in homelessness for $35,000 to $150,000 a year, or you could literally end their homelessness for $13,000 to $25,000 a year,” – Philip Mangano, former National Homeless policy Czar to President Bush and Obama. http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2012/mar/12/shaun-donovan/hud-secretary-says-homeless-person-costs-taxpayers/
In fact, in Nashville estimates are that it would cost about $13,877 per year for permanent supportive housing including case management and a part time psychiatrist if needed, far less than the money wasted on criminalization of the homeless. (2013 Homelessness Report). Housing first is not only the more compassionate way to help the homeless, it is the more cost efficient way as well.

How many people are homeless in Tennessee and in the US?


“On a single night last January, 633,782 people were homeless in the United States, largely unchanged from the year before.  In releasing HUD’s latest national estimate of homelessness, U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan cited as hopeful that even during a historic housing and economic downturn, local communities are reporting significant declines in the number of homeless veterans and those experiencing long-term chronic homelessness.”  Read HUD’s 2012 Point-in-Time Estimates of Homelessness One should note that Point-in-Time counts significantly underestimate the number of homeless in Nashville by at least ½, and we can expect national estimates to be underestimated as well. To give a sense of the degree of the underestimate, school districts are required to report homeless schoolchildren, and their report suggests that nationally there are some 1.3 million schoolchildren, yet the vast majority of these are not in shelters. This would more than double the number of homeless without beginning to examine how many of these children are staying with parents who are also homeless and not being counted in the annual point in time counts.


In Tennessee, on a single night in January, again a significant underestimate of the actual number, there were some 9,426 homeless individuals, 13% of whom were veterans. Read HUD’s 2012 Point-in-Time Estimates of Homelessness

Who are we?

We are a grassroots coalition of homeless advocates and people who have been or are experiencing homelessness. We are working to end homelessness and address the root causes of poverty and oppression by educating ourselves and our community, by developing concrete campaigns and solutions, and by building power through relationships with our brothers and sisters on the streets and allies in the broader Nashville community. We fight for the human rights of all poor people while striving for the civil rights of those who remain on the streets. We believe that housing, healthcare, food security, the use of public facilities, and simply existing in public space are rights that everyone deserves.

What are we most concerned with?

The top three issues we focus on are (1) increasing people’s ability to access safe and affordable housing, (2) ending the criminalization of homelessness—the laws, ordinances, and policing policies that unfairly affect people who are un-housed, and (3) better educating and involving the faith community.

When and where do we meet?

We meet downtown every month and its meetings are open to anyone who wants to join. We have a planning group that facilitates the meetings and we make decisions as a group. The planning group is a rotating group made up of 6-8 homeless and formerly homeless people and homeless advocates. Smaller working groups meeting throughout the month.