Nashville’s Chronically Homeless: The Costly Revolving Door

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Yolanda Fleming lingers at a downtown bus bench

Yolanda Fleming lingers at a downtown bus bench

Nashville is halfway into its ten-year plan to end chronic homelessness, and the problem still persists. Some believe with the economy it’s gotten worse. Anywhere from a couple hundred to one thousand homeless fit the “chronic” description – meaning they’re mentally ill or battling addictions and have lived on the street for more than a year.

A Costly Cycle

 

Nearly every morning a computer in the Davidson County Jail prints out a list of all the homeless arrested the day before.

“I’m looking right here at a guy who has 181 arrests over ten years. It’s not uncommon there’s 143 arrests.”

Jeff Blum tracks the jail’s mentally ill inmates, many of whom are homeless, and helps them navigate the court system. As he looks at the list a familiar name sticks out, one with severe mental illness, a slew of public intoxication charges and a new trespassing arrest. It’s his 204th.

“He’ll be here four or five days at the most and then he’ll be back out on the streets again,” Blum says. “He’ll have detoxed slightly but he’ll be hitting it as soon as he’s gets back out on the street. And it’s that horrible cycle that goes on.”

Arrest number 205 is likely. It’s the jail’s revolving door. Neither the county nor city tracks exactly how much this chronically homeless group costs. The jail does know they can spend hundreds even thousands of dollars on one person. They pay for psychiatric drugs, any medical needs, plus just housing an inmate is 60 bucks a night.

Across the street at the courthouse Blum meets with public defenders figuring out who’s mentally stable enough to face charges. If they’re unstable, often minor infractions, like trespassing or theft, are dismissed. Blum points to a name on his list.

Charged with Sitting on a Bus Bench

 

Blum points to the name of a woman on his list charged with sitting on a bus bench.

“She got arrested for that?” he asks a public defender. The answer is yes.

They’re talking about Yolanda. She’s been homeless for years and arrested 29 times, mostly for sleeping where she isn’t allowed and occasionally fighting with police about it.

“We just don’t get along,” Yolanda says. “Me and the police just don’t get along”

On a sticky July morning, she’s on a downtown bus bench holding a cup of coffee a woman just bought for her. Dressed in a neon orange t-shirt, her dark eyes – heavy with fatigue – watch passers-by hustle to work. Before the morning rush, it was a pretty good night.

“Well, it was quiet and it was dark right here, and it was peaceful,” she says. “I got some rest last night, but no, I’m still tired.”

Homeless Cause Problems for Businesses

 

The 43-year-old sleeps sitting up on a thin white pillow. Metal partitions that look like briefcase handles protrude from benches, so lying down is impossible. When not on the bench, Yolanda lays low, quietly folding into the city’s hidden corners. Near the downtown Sheraton Hotel, it’s a constant, visible crowd. Guests notice.

“It’s three or four a week where they specifically say, ‘I’ll never come back to Nashville,” says Ed Mroz, the Sheraton manager.

Mroz hears frequent complaints, and he says fewer returning visitors means less tax revenue for Nashville. Walking outside around his hotel he points to a covered doorway.

“We have to clean this often,” Mroz says. “You can see where there’s some stains you can see where they’ve been doing some pressure cleaning in here in order to try and clean up after people have used it as a lavatory.”

Mroz says he’s spent close to a thousand dollars putting up extra gates, hired more security, and paid to spruce up flowerbeds used as mattresses. He stands by the hotel loading dock looking at a park across the street where homeless like to meet up.

“You know people just hanging out. You know it’s just crazy,” Mroz says. “I don’t understand why it’s allowed but we have, you know, more presence.”

Cell Space at a Premium

 

Two police officers ride through the park on bikes. Recently, downtown businesses requested and received increased patrols. They also want homeless found guilty on misdemeanors, to remain locked up for their full sentence. But, jail officials say cell space is needed for more serious criminals, so homeless typically cycle out in a few days.

Back on the bus bench, an outreach worker, Jeannie Alexander talks with Yolanda about giving some form of housing a chance.

“The group home is not something you want to try to do?” Alexander asks.

Yolanda shakes her head no. She was in a group home, didn’t like it and left. Alexander suggests a single apartment with a counselor onsite where Yolanda can have some time to herself.

“My own place with a good hot bath, you know where I can get a lot of rest?” Yolanda asks. “Oh that sounds good. You can do that?”

“We’re gonna try,” Alexander says.

The day after this talk, Yolanda disappeared. Three weeks later she popped up in an unfortunate, familiar place – jail.

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