Among the many damaging side effects of homelessness is anonymity.
Homeless men and women (and children) have names, faces and stories. But take someone's address away, and much more disappears with it. Add social stigma to an identity that has been all but erased, and the person quickly blurs into the faceless ranks of The Homeless.
Efforts to fight homelessness can suffer from the same symptom. Work with a group that has largely blended into the corners of society, and your work might go unseen. So too might your progress. One can hardly imagine a quicker route to societal apathy than an eternal struggle in which victories go unnoticed, but panhandlers remain.
In light of that, a gathering last week of activists, organizers and a few homeless Nashvillians at the downtown Nashville Public Library was a small victory in itself. The event was anchored by a screening of a recent 60 Minutes report by Anderson Cooper, who came to town to document the success of a campaign called How's Nashville.
A local outpost of the nationwide 100,000 Homes Campaign, How's Nashville — which operates under the umbrella of the Metro Homelessness Commission — has brought together various like-minded organizations and agencies with the seemingly obvious goal of putting homeless people in homes. What's bringing attention to the campaign, however, is the way it's reversing the typical approach to helping people get off the streets.
It aims to give the most vulnerable among the homeless a home before asking them to shower, shave and get a job or go to rehab. Local advocates say you can eliminate a long list of legal, medical and psychological damage done by chronic homelessness just by putting someone in an apartment now. As the campaign's website puts it, the "approach believes that every person is housing-ready. Housing is a human right."
In his report, Cooper focuses largely on another factor: It may also save money.
"The inability to tend to your basic health care needs results in people on the streets ending up in emergency rooms and ending up in inpatient hospitalizations," Becky Kanis, director of the 100,000 Homes Campaign, tells Cooper in the report. "One night in the hospital is a month's rent in most places. We are paying more as taxpayers to walk past that person on the street and do nothing than we would be paying to just give them an apartment."
And that's what local members of the campaign have been doing. Since the commission brought the campaign to Nashville in June 2013, How's Nashville has found housing for some 360 people. Eating the elephant one bite at a time, as it were, the campaign has set itself short-term goals. The last one was to house 200 people in 100 days — they made it to 189. Their new goal has to do with logistics ... and of course, housing more people.
They plan to create a new Coordinated Entry System, which would bring more order to the somewhat chaotic process of aligning various organizations and agencies, all looking to match a homeless person with a home. They hope to test the system by housing 50 individuals and 50 families.
Ingrid McIntyre, the effervescent executive director and co-founder of Open Table Nashville, a nonprofit group working with the campaign, makes sure to tell the group the new 100-day countdown has begun before she sits down to chat with a Scene reporter. Still, she says a few minutes celebrating the work that's been done is worth it.
"Of course there's always more work to be done, but you have to, just like today, make those days for celebration and celebrate where we can," she says.
As people stop by to give her a hug or invite her to come check out their new apartment, she identifies another vital part of the effort — removing the cloud of anonymity that can make it easy to overlook the homeless community.
"That's why the relationship part is so crucial," she says, "That we build relationships with people, and then it's not just this ambiguous number, it's not just this crazy amoeba out there looming over all of us. It's a person that we know and that we love, and we know their story, and they know our story."
There are many stories in the auditorium that day to be told. There's that of Robert McMurtry, the 48-year-old once-homeless star of Cooper's report, who was living in a storage unit and bathing in a nearby stream but now lives in a downtown apartment. There's also Charles Hahn, a 59-year-old veteran sitting in the back of the auditorium, who says he's been homeless on and off since 1980. He won't go to the mission for fear of losing his belongings, and he says he avoids Room In The Inn for fear of wounding his pride. He asks that the location of his camp be kept out of print, afraid he'll be run off by the police.
The story of How's Nashville is to be continued, for at least another 100 days. For about a half-hour last week, it gave names to The Homeless, shed light on some progress, and provided a little warmth in the midst of bitter cold.
But winter's not over yet.