Discussion over closure of Jefferson Street homeless encampment turns tense

Posted at 9:44 PM, Feb 14, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-15 07:37:39-05

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — After the city closed a well-known Nashville homeless camp over the weekend, Metro leaders and homeless advocates are at odds over how it was handled.

A sign and fence went up outside the homeless encampment under the Jefferson Street Bridge on Saturday. It stated the area was now government property and no trespassing was allowed.

Homeless advocates, including members of Open Table Nashville, immediately turned to social media to state their concerns. They said residents at the camp did not receive proper written notice of the pending closure.

Monday afternoon's Human Services Committee meeting in Metro Council chambers featured some tense debate over what happened. Committee Chair and Council Member Ginny Welsch questioned Interim Director of the Metro Homeless Impact Division Jay Servais about the decision to close the encampment.

"You also said nothing would be implemented in that pilot program until you had reached community partners," said Welsch. "None of which has happened at the Jefferson Street encampment. Can you explain why?"

"That’s not true," replied Servais.

Servais said the closure was part of a pilot program approved by Mayor John Cooper's office that aims to move people into safer and stable housing, and residents at the camp were notified ahead of time.

A statement released after the meeting said: "A plan to support residents at Jefferson Street Bridge has been in place since 2020 and has proven effective. Throughout this effort, no critical process was circumvented, although misinformation and misunderstanding to that effect has been circulated by some. In addition to signage, residents were personally informed of these efforts over the past 30 days."

However, Welsch maintained the closure was done without council and community support and didn't comply with Metro policies designed to ensure people with the greatest need receive housing first.

Several homeless advocates, including members of Open Table Nashville, also listened in at the meeting.

"We don’t want to see the city systematically choosing and closing encampments when there are not alternatives for people," said Lindsey Krinks, director of education for Open Table Nashville. "The kind of plan we would like to see to address outdoor homelessness is about creating more affordable housing and creating safe places people can stay."

While both Metro leaders and advocates agreed they want to do what is best to help the homeless population, they were unable to reach an agreement at the meeting on how to best accomplish that goal.

"Nashville has helped nearly 2,000 people get into stable housing since January. We’re making early progress and digging deep into this important work," a spokesperson for Mayor Cooper said in a statement.