NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — A Metro spokesperson said there are currently no plans to change the overflow winter shelter location despite requests from homeless outreach advocates.
Open Table, a Nashville non-profit that provides resources for the homeless community, specifically wants Metro’s overflow shelter to be moved from the old Davidson County Jail to another location. The shelter is activated when temperatures drop to 28 degrees or below.
"We strongly believe Metro's Overflow Shelter needs to be moved to a new location that is not associated with DSCO/law enforcement immediately," Open Table Co-Founder Lindsey Krinks said in a letter to staff.
Krinks said they encountered more than 220 people Friday night and less than 18 percent were willing to go to the dorm. They followed up with them the next day and some said they wouldn’t be back, saying the environment "felt like jail."
Neighborhood Health CEO Brian Haile said after canvassing on Friday, fewer than 10 out of the 40 homeless people he met chose to stay away from the shelter. Among the reasons are fear and concerns about being in a place associated with a jail, and the distance from downtown even though there is transportation available.
"It does have a connotation of being a jail as one might expect," Haile said. "A large number of people said they would prefer to stay outside and take their chances on the street."
In an email sent to city officials, Haile expressed his worries and appreciation for changes this year including keeping couples together and allowing pets. The Metro spokesperson said the site was chosen because of its operational features, including built-in beds, commercial kitchen, showers, bathrooms, on-site laundry for guest bedding, and the ability to provide in-room kenneling for guests and their pets. In a statement, the city says, "past overflow shelter sites would not allow us to provide all these services to as many as 150 guests."
However, Reverend Lisa Cook of Sacred Sparks Ministry, an organization that provides free laundry and lunch to the homeless, said there needs to be a better option. Even though it no longer operates as a jail, she said the idea of being in a former detention facility can be tough for people with mental health and trauma issues that could be linked to incarceration.
"We have built relationships with these people, and when we go out and say there's a good, safe place to go to, they trust us enough to do that," Cook explained. "When you take them to a place like that, we lose the trust that took years to build."
The primary homeless shelters in Nashville are Room In The Inn and the Nashville Rescue Mission in downtown. For a variety of reasons, the overflow shelter is the main option for others because they either choose not or cannot enter any of the downtown shelters. On Friday, occupancy at NRM topped out at 65 percent, and Room In The Inn reported having capacity as well.
The overflow shelter had more than 50 people checked in on Friday and 122 Tuesday night.
Metro says it has improved communications with guests to remind them that they are free to leave the overflow shelter at any time and that smoke breaks will be allowed after 10:00 p.m.