This is an extraordinary photo essay about Nashville's Tent City.
And the following is an article from The Tennessean
Through seven years in a tent, where the elements leak through a tear in the tarp that covers him and rats occasionally scurry across the earthen floor, Harold LaVelle never thought about where else he would want to live.
The 62-year-old was driven off the downtown streets years ago by cops and dangerous drifters. Now, he lives where the homes are made of found materials: sheets of plastic, portable toilets, scrap wood and old couches. There are no bathrooms, no electricity or Dumpsters. Dogs on the loose play together. Flies buzz. Trash piles up.
When asked where he'll go when the camp, known as Tent City, is shut down for good, LaVelle quietly stroked his beard. His eyes filled with tears.
He pointed up, toward the sky.
Ending homelessness in Nashville is a clear common goal, although motivations run the gamut and there's a mixed bag of approaches. From the government comes punishment and compassion but few solutions.
There are nearly two dozen campsites tucked into the nooks and crannies of the wooded area off Anthes Drive, just behind the railroad tracks and alongside the back of Inner City Ministries.
Last week, Metro police officers told residents at the decades-old campsite that they were trespassing. Officers nailed brochures to trees listing places to get help. Fliers they passed out said everyone must be out by Sept. 22 or face prosecution.
Most of the residents have been prosecuted countless times already, for walking along the railroad tracks, drinking in public or sleeping in a downtown growing weary of their presence. For a year, the police department has paid for extra officers to write tickets each week, an attempt to make the downtown more livable for urban residents.
More than 1,200 times between July 2007 and August 2008, people were written citations or arrested — and that doesn't count the violations that patrol officers write on their daily beat.
They call them "quality of life" issues: aggressive panhandling, public urination, blocking passageways and other violations of Metro ordinance often broken by those who live on the street.
Steve Samra, an outreach worker with the Park Center, goes to the camp almost daily, armed with tobacco, bus passes and a van to take people to doctor's appointments. He's working feverishly now, networking on behalf of Tent City's residents, looking for a real roof to put over as many heads as possible.
Howard Mercer considered Tent City his refuge. He grew tired of the police presence, downtown and at the men's rescue mission where he slept.
"They were always arresting and handcuffing," Mercer said, leaning shirtless out of the door of the home he shares with a roommate, a construct of metal and scrap wood, wrapped in an old concert poster. "Here? Freedom."
Stabbing rushes closing
Violence shattered the limited comfort of the campsite over the Labor Day weekend. Then came more police and a pending order to clear out.
Police say Lowell Parker, 37, walked from Tent City to the riverfront for help after his stomach was sliced open. The police department took notice.
The camp had been on the chopping block earlier in the month, but city officials and advocates decided to start a cleanup effort and hoped to postpone a decision. They created a list of actions, including requesting toilets and Dumpsters and expanding outreach programs.
But after the stabbing, it seemed all bets were off.
Later in the week, on Friday, police went to Tent City and arrested Robert Copeland. He admitted to the stabbing, Metro police spokesman Don Aaron said, and was charged with aggravated assault.
At a Metro homelessness commission meeting that morning, commissioners called for a delay in closing the campsite. Some saw the stabbing as a quick excuse for opponents of Tent City to shut it down.
"How many murders happen in the streets, committed by the youth?" asked Clemmie Greenlee, who sits on the commission. "That doesn't mean everyone has to move out of the projects … It is a safety and health issue, but that's because the state and government won't help clean it up."
Though piles of beer cans and refuse were still scattered through the camp, Samra said they had started to clean up and made great progress.
Some cities form camps
Nashville has been researching ways to make a Tent City-like encampment legal.
Metro Development and Housing Agency's homeless coordinator Clifton Harris said California, Kansas and upstate Washington all have campsites for their homeless.
He's researching whether Nashville can emulate one of those models as one way to serve the city's homeless population — estimated at 11,000.
Regardless, he says the real solution needs to be wide-ranging — ending homelessness.
"We do what we make a priority," Harris said. "And if homelessness is a priority, in any city, it will end."
Tent City's population swelled this summer to nearly 60 people, part of the reason residents think they are under more police scrutiny.
"More now, (the police) are less tolerant of us," said Anita Nuzum, 26, an on-and-off resident of Tent City for five years. "I know a lot of them drink and get rambunctious, but why do they classify us all as drunks, like we're all nothings?"
There is plenty of drinking going on in Tent City, unlike the Nashville Rescue Mission, where drinking isn't allowed. Those staying there often have to leave their belongings outside. They don't like to do that because what little they have usually gets stolen. Many residents prefer Tent City and say it's the safest place they can be.
John El, who goes by Ted, spends his days digging on the riverfront, looking for old bottles and glassware he can get sold on eBay. He keeps a BB gun in his tent to scare the rats. A table and chairs sit outside his fence, for company, but El says he's the solitary type.
"This is my peace right over here," he said. "I tend to my own business.''
Central Precinct Cmdr. Damian Huggins personally started to inform the residents on Tuesday afternoon that the camp, which stretches across private, city and state property, would soon be off-limits.
"Some people ask why an aggressive stance on this issue now," Huggins said. "But it's not an aggressive stance; we've brought more attention to the issue by going out and talking to people. We're seeing what resources we can get to folks before we go in there and enforce the laws."
Huggins gained attention in July — his first month at the helm of the downtown area — when he started a controversial program to offer homeless people a one-way ticket out of town, paid for by the Nashville Downtown Partnership. Community activists said that while the intentions may have been good, the offer could be intimidating when coming from someone with a badge.
The police department has severed its ties with the program he started, Huggins said.
But concerns about how officers treat the homeless remain.
Recently, a Metro police sergeant shocked a group of mental health workers and homeless advocates when he arrived at one of their meetings with a drunken homeless man in handcuffs.
The officer, Sgt. Mikell Wiggs, was not disciplined, Aaron said.
"Sergeant Wiggs meant well," Aaron said.
Personal approach taken
For some of the homeless, when they do enter the justice system it sometimes means getting them help.
Judge Dan Eisenstein typically sees only hard-core of fenders in his Mental Health Court. The minor offenses of the chronically homeless usually don't send them to Eisenstein's court. But last week, when it was Eisenstein's turn to preside over a General Sessions docket of minor offenders, he took a personal ap proach. He asked each person why he or she was homeless and what he could do to help change that.
Eisenstein put several people in touch with their families.
One man needed help qualifying for his disability pension and said he'd go to the Salvation Army if he had $10. So Eisenstein got him $10 and the help he needed.
"My thought is, what good is a two-day sentence for a trespassing ticket?" Eisenstein said. "We can at least give some options to people they might not think about, and help them if they can't do it."
Within the Central Precinct, there is a lieutenant who considers it her calling to do what she can for the homeless, and she acknowledges that to protect them, she often has to arrest them.
When several people stack up on a downtown grate on a cold night, Lt. Andrea Swisher knows that one drunken driver could take out the sleeping lot. And she thinks they deserve better than the rat-infested campsite.
"This site is not designed for human habitation," Swisher said.
"Campsites have showers and places for waste disposal. If someone does call 911, we need to park cars, walk a great distance and then try to find the person who needs help."
She knows this is a home, a community she's talking about. Some of the structures are extensive enough to keep the cold out. But sometimes, Swisher said, people in their comfort zone need a push to realize there's something better out there.
"In law enforcement, sometimes you have to help someone who doesn't want your help," she said.
Tuesday, September 9, 2008
Tent City No More
This is an extraordinary photo essay about Nashville's Tent City.