Homelessness Commission Eyes Alternatives to Jail

Nashville’s Homelessness Commission is looking for a way authorities can get help for homeless people, instead of legally punishing them. For example when police find a homeless person sleeping in a park, they could have a social worker step in, rather than a criminal court.

Father Charles Strobel works on the committee on police issues with homelessness. He says the program, called Homeless Court, would be based on a model from San Diego.

“At the point where the police encounter a situation that appears to be criminal, social workers are contacted at that point to try and resolve that, rather than put it into the criminal justice system.”

That ties in with another plan, which Strobel says aims to create a “single point of entry” – a unified system that gets homeless people help from various agencies. Otherwise Strobel says they’re often lost in the shuffle for medical help, social workers and housing specialists.

But Strobel cautions progress on the committee is slow, with some members preferring a more hands-off approach.

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Last month Nashville Mayor Karl Dean released a plan to address poverty, which included a call for a housing trust fund. Commission Director Clifton Harris says making homes available is vital, but raising funds for it remains a massive challenge.

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Harris says getting the homeless into housing reduces crime, improves education among children, and leads to fewer hospital visits, by helping protect those with chronic illnesses, and those who would face conditions like frostbite if left to the elements.

“Right now we’ve put 56 people in our Housing First program. We are having success of a 92 percent housing-retention rate. And we have to go as far as getting 1,600 more homes for people.”

Harris says where to find dedicated funding for a Housing Trust is the key question – “It can be a host of things, and I think we have to be creative,” he said.

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