(Nashville has 2500 to 3000 homeless people, and last year 50 died. Victoria has 1500 homeless people, and last year over 100 died. Perhaps it is because Nashville is a southern state, and here in Victoria it rains for many months. If they consider this a crisis in Nashville, then what do we have here in Victoria?)
By Rachel Stults, The Tennessean,
They were found in doorways and stairwells, on grated vents or bundled under plastic tarps to fight the cold, even though many of them should be in hospital beds. Many of their hungry bodies are sick, stricken with cancer, liver disease, kidney failure, AIDS and mental illness.
Volunteers gently shook each one awake, asked permission to interview them, and began asking questions that homeless advocates hope will end up saving lives.
Over three days last week, outreach teams surveyed 320 people sleeping on Nashville’s streets and shelters about their medical histories and the time they’ve lived on the street. The goal is to put the city’s most vulnerable ahead of the line when it comes to prioritizing housing. Results released Friday show that 134 were deemed to have one or more health problems that put them at the highest risk of dying, and in immediate need of housing.
“We need to figure out how to use this data so folks don’t die on the streets and they get the resources they need,” said Will Connelly, director of homeless services for Park Center, the Nashville nonprofit that spearheaded the project here.
The 45-question survey aimed to capture each person’s health needs and social status. Volunteers, armed with food coupons, asked a range of questions, recording names, ages, and how long each person had been living on the streets. They asked about jail time and military service.
Then came more personal questions: Have you ever been treated for drug or alcohol abuse? Do you have cancer? Are you currently receiving treatment for mental health issues? Do you have HIV or AIDs?
“I’m astounded at some of the findings — some of this was a bit alarming,” said Clifton Harris, director of the Metropolitan Homeless Commission.
Over the next 30 days, the commission will put together a plan to address the situation, Harris said. Finding available housing will be a challenge, he said, but the commission will begin discussing the data and forming a plan at its next meeting, Nov. 7.
“It makes sense, in my opinion, to get the most vulnerable people off the streets and into housing,” Harris said. “In the long run, it will save the city and taxpayers and the medical industry a lot of money.”
The survey, called a vulnerability index, ranked Nashville’s homeless in order of their health needs. Those who have lived on the streets longer than six months and have a history of maladies such as renal disease, liver disease, mental illness or even cold-weather diseases could be determined to be most at risk of dying, and in the greatest need of housing.
Homeless people with one or more of those risks have a 40 percent chance of dying within the next seven years, advocates say.
Park Center, along with more than two dozen volunteers, followed the process used by Common Ground, a New York-based nonprofit that created the index and has surveyed and housed sick and dying homeless individuals in cities such as Los Angeles, New Orleans, Portland and New York.
50 died last year
Nashville’s homeless population is an estimated 2,500 to 3,000, and social service agencies say they serve 11,000 people experiencing short- or long-term homelessness each year.
But it was the streets where nearly 500 people slept last year, and where 50 died.
“You would think the most vulnerable people would be in a shelter, and sometimes there are very vulnerable segments of the homeless population in shelters. But also what you see out here morning after morning is some people are too sick or incapable for other reasons of getting to the shelters,” said Jeannie Alexander, a homeless outreach specialist for Park Center. “We’ve been able to identify a number of people we believe are so vulnerable that if they don’t get housing, they will die.”
Anita Hatfield’s plight illustrates the severity of the problem.
For four weeks, Hatfield, 43, has slept on a bench at the corner of Church Street and Seventh Avenue.
She doesn’t know why she got kicked out of her apartment, and this is the first time she has ever been homeless.
On these nights, where the temperature has begun to dip toward freezing, Hatfield sits bundled in blankets someone brought her. But she doesn’t sleep much because she’s afraid.
Men try to pick her up. She can’t ever find a place where she is left alone by the police, even though she says she’s done nothing wrong.
And with a host of medical conditions, including bipolar disorder, epilepsy, asthma and autism, Hatfield said she lives in fear.
“I want a warm place at night to sleep without being harassed, to have food to eat,” she said. “There are a lot of people out here who ain’t going to make it this winter, a lot of elderly people out here who are having to fight through the night while being sick.”
Risk similar nationwide
Although last week’s survey downtown didn’t encompass all of Nashville’s homeless, it was an accurate snapshot of what’s going on here, said Becky Kanis, director of innovations for Common Ground.
And it also mirrored what outreach workers have found across the country, where consistently about 42 percent of each city’s homeless populations were at risk of dying in the streets.
In Nashville, two findings caught the attention of activists.
Nearly 40 percent of the homeless surveyed in Nashville have visited hospitals or emergency rooms in the past three months, more than three times higher than in other cities. Advocates estimate that emergency room costs alone have cost $617,000 per year.
And 30 percent of homeless veterans are at risk of dying on Nashville’s streets, compared with an average of 22 percent in other cities, the survey found. Harris wants to work with Veterans Affairs to identify who isn’t getting benefits now and who might be eligible.
Some success seen
The index has already seen some success here. In August, workers with Park Center performed a trial run in Tent City, a makeshift camp for Nashville’s homeless off Hermitage Avenue. The nonprofit surveyed 35 people and found eight who fit the profile as Tent City’s most vulnerable people in need of immediate housing. Vouchers for housing were pledged to them.
And already, the Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency has pledged that 35 housing vouchers will be made available over the next few months to Nashville’s most vulnerable.
“I think people will recognize these are not the stereotypical homeless folks who are laying at Library Park, sipping mouthwash behind the fountain,” said Steve Samra, a homeless outreach specialist for Park Center. “They are people at serious risk of death or serious illness if they’re left to the city streets and that’s our focus — those are the people we’re targeting.”
Nelson Johnson, 43, has been homeless for more than 30 years, and has spent 12 of those years in Nashville, in and out of hotels and shelters, but mostly on the streets.
This week, he found temporary shelter at a campsite in Tent City.
As the sun rose early Thursday morning, Johnson fought through coughing fits to answer the survey questions volunteers asked him.
He said he has been diagnosed with AIDS and hepatitis C, and has been dealing with both since 1991.
“I stay pretty sick being out here,” he said. “But I’m glad somebody’s out here trying to help me.”