Metro leaders, advocates at odds over housing solutions for COVID-19 positive homeless residents

Groups vow to work together after Tuesday meeting
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Posted at 8:58 PM, Jul 27, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-27 23:23:06-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Despite recent tension, Metro leaders and homeless advocates vow to work together to find ways to safely house homeless residents who test positive for COVID-19.

Nashville Vice Mayor Jim Shulman called an emergency meeting at the Metro Courthouse to jump-start a discussion between representatives from the Nashville Office of Emergency Management, Nashville Public Health Department, Metro Social Services' Homeless Impact Division, Neighborhood Health and Open Table Nashville.

"How do we get on the same page so we protect individuals who have COVID, and we protect everyone else in the city?" asked Shulman as the meeting began.

It was quickly apparent a lack of trust and communication between groups has hindered decisions.

"We have yet to be invited to the table to talk about developing a plan," said Paula Foster, executive director of Open Table Nashville.

Discussions heated up recently when around 50 residents at the Nashville Rescue Mission tested positive for COVID-19 and were moved from the Mission to the old Core Civic prison facility on Harding Place to quarantine. Officials with the Nashville Office of Emergency Management said they needed to act quickly to address the situation, and considered multiple locations before deciding on the old jail.

"We went through a very thorough search for the best location," said William Swann, Nashville Fire Chief. "We needed to select a site that wouldn’t interfere with the government trying to open back up."

Swann stressed that homeless individuals are not being housed in cells, and have plenty of room to social distance. He said if a person isn't comfortable moving to the old jail, Metro will work with them to find another arrangement.

However, homeless advocates, including members of Open Table Nashville, had concerns about congregate housing and said an old jail is not an ideal location to house someone who may have mental health issues. They proposed using motels instead and offered to provide support to residents who are relocated there.

They were also critical that Metro leaders had not involved them in the decision, and said lack of communication between agencies has been a problem for years.

"Why in the world are we not pre-planning for these things?" asked Foster. "We know they will happen, so why aren’t we?"

Both Metro leaders and homeless advocates agreed they want what's best for homeless residents and the entire city, and want to work together to achieve that goal.

A representative from the Metro Social Services' Homeless Impact Division will now set up a new task force featuring both Metro leaders and representatives who work with the homeless community in hopes of opening up communication and finding a solution that everyone can agree on.

"I’m much more hopeful today than I was yesterday," said Vice Mayor Shulman after the meeting.