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How many people struggle with homelessness in your city? May 8, 2009

Posted by tackettmedia in homelessness.
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Nashville has anywhere from 10,000 to 11,500 homeless – that is the answer to the question you will have when you leave the movie The Soloist.

You may have heard about The Soloist, the movie that opened recently starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr. It is based on Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez’ friendship to Nathaniel Ayers, a musically gifted, chronically homeless person. Ayers dropped out of Juilliard when he was in his early 20s because of his mental illness.

The story of the two middle-aged men’s friendship is touching and powerful. It opens viewers’ eyes to some of the complexity of homelessness.

 Lopez experienced how hard it is to help a chronically, mentally ill homeless person. I know what he encountered because when I was still in journalism school, my best friend, a Metro Police sergeant befriended a chronically homeless man in Nashville and started working to get him services he needed.

It is a full time job to deal with the complexities of a mentally disabled, chronically homeless man who is dying from lung cancer. That’s why my friend reached out to her circle of friends to help out. I remember how awkward it felt signing the lease on an apartment that financed with money from a fundraiser my friend organized for this purpose.

Taking care of a dying homeless man is not an easy feat. I don’t take credit. I only was there to support my friend who took the lead in dealing with social services, doctors, Alive Hospice, and so on.

What’s interesting though is that this experience has changed my life. For one, I met my husband who was also among the core group of people who checked on Earnest. Secondly, when I became a reporter I made it a point to regularly write about homelessness issues in this city.

I followed former Mayor Bill Purcell’s Task Force to create a 10 Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness in Nashville. I went to meetings of the Metropolitan Homelessness Commission and regularly wrote about their progress, problems and other community groups dealing with homelessness. And now, as a freelancer, I am helping with the communications outreach effort of the Metropolitan Homelessness Commission – and all because I took the time to get to know Earnest.

Was he always a nice man? No. As a matter of fact, I was thinking about giving him a piece of my mind just before he passed away because I saw how stubborn he was with my friend. Now I’m glad I didn’t actually do it.

What touched me most about The Soloist is that Steve Lopez realizes that all he can be is a friend and that being a friend sometimes has to be enough.

At the end of the movie, a number flashed upon the screen – it told people how many homeless are roaming the streets of Los Angeles. I heard a gasp in the row behind me.

That’s what made me write this column. The answer is that Nashville has between 10,000 and 11,500 homeless people. This includes subgroups of homeless people such as chronically homeless, youth, domestic violence victims, families with children, veterans, and young people aging out of homelessness.

On Feb. 9 of this year, the city conducted a homeless count where volunteers roamed the streets at night and shelters counted people sleeping there. This year’s total came to more than 2,100, but the count provides only a point-in-time number. It didn’t include people sleeping in motels or doubling up with family members or friends.

Nashville service providers estimate the real number of homeless in Nashville to be anywhere from 3,000-5,000 individuals at any given time. That number spikes up to 10,000-11,500 when you consider the unduplicated annual numbers reported by homeless service providers.

What is the solution? Getting people into supportive, permanent housing, which offer individualized case management and wrap around services. It costs the city $46.57 – $57.54 per day to keep a person in supportive housing.

In comparison, it costs the city about $80 to house a person in jail, which doesn’t include the arrest cost, public defender cost or court cost. An ER visit costs on average $1,000.

But how do we get people into housing? Through outreach work. Right now, Nashville has five outreach specialists. With a population of 11,500, that’s an outreach ratio of 1:2,300.

Yes, there are homeless people who are not ready to be helped. But with only 1 outreach worker per 2,300 people, we clearly are not reaching everybody who wants to be helped.

No one expects you to go out there and take a homeless person off the street. But you can help. First, learn about the issues surrounding homelessness. The best way to get an overall picture is by going to the Metropolitan Homelessness Commission, which aims to coordinate local efforts. Visit www.nashvillesroadhome.org and sign up for the newsletter and/or volunteer opportunities.

These hard economic times have taught us that many of us are just one paycheck away from being homeless. In the end, homelessness is an issue of poverty. A rich drug addict will less likely fall homeless than a poor addict.

Or think of it another way: When you ask a child what he wants to be when he grows up, it’s very unlikely that you hear, “When I grow up, I want to be homeless.”

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