Local Leaders Address Homelessness

Nearly 3.5 million Americans will be homeless for some portion of the year, according to new federal data. And the issue of homelessness affects more than just large cities; many small, sometimes even rural, towns are also struggling to lessen the amount of individuals and families living life on the streets. Erik Cole, a City Council member in Nashville, and Peter Brown, a Community Services Manager in Ventura, Calif., explain the popularization of "tent cities" by some governments and how California lawmakers have relaxed rules to allow the homeless to sleep in their cars.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we'll hear from an Iranian journalist who is risking her job, her reputation and maybe even her freedom in hopes of getting an interview with President Obama. We'll find out why in just a moment.

But first, new approaches to homelessness. News federal figures show that up to 3.5 million Americans will be homeless during some part of the year. And while many think of homelessness as a phenomenon for big cities, smaller cities and towns and rural areas are also affected. But unlike many large urban areas, these communities don't have an infrastructure set up to deal with homelessness on a large scale. So they're trying different things.

We're going to hear about two of those approaches. Joining us now is Eric Cole. He is a City Council member in Nashville, Tennessee, where authorities have decided to allow tent cities for the homeless to remain in place for now. Also with us is Peter Brown. He is a community services manager for the city government in Ventura, California. There, officials have decided to change the law to allow more homeless people to sleep in their cars in certain areas without fear of a fine. Gentlemen, welcome to the program. Thank you both so much for joining us.

Mr. ERIC COLE (City Council Member, Nashville): Thank you so much for having us.

Mr. PETER BROWN (Community Services Manager, Ventura): Thanks for having me on today.

MARTIN: So, Peter, why don't we start, what prompted the city to change this ordinance at this time? This is the kind of thing that generally stimulates, as I would imagine, a lot of public discussion. So, what led up to this?

Mr. BROWN: There's an organization in the City of Ventura called the Ventura Social Services Task Force. It's made up of faith-based organizations, government officials, elected officials, and community members including business owners. And that body has a bunch of subcommittees. And one of those subcommittees actually brought forth a few resolutions to the Ventura City municipal government. One of them was specific to a safe sleep program or sleeping in cars program.

MARTIN: So, the idea is that you've designate certain places that people can go. And when you call it safe sleeping does that imply that there are some monitoring going on, perhaps a police presence.

Mr. BROWN: In an effort to sort of remove the stigma of criminalization of homelessness, our hope is to actually keep the police kind of away from this program.

The city is going to grant $20,000 to a non-profit social service agency who will provide assessment and supervision in four or five church or nonprofit parking lots that are carefully chosen over the next two or three months and do a pilot program for a year with about 15 vehicles. It could be multiple people in those vehicles are just single folks.

MARTIN: Eric, let's bring you into the conversation. Wall Street Journal recently reported that there is a - I don't know what - maybe an encampment already near the Cumberland River in Nashville. Can you just describe it for us, describe like how many people you think are there now.

Mr. COLE: It's probably population changes anywhere between 30 and 50 or 60 individuals at a time depending on the time of year, then wooded area kind of back behind nonprofit agency right up against the Cumberland River and under interstate overpass.

And individuals have created pretty extensive camp sites with roofs and stoves. At some cases, they brought in electricity. Over the years and we've really found, that it's a lot of individuals who are trying to find some sort of refuge from the mean streets or from the violence and disorder they see in other parts of the city as they're homeless. We've also seen some of the newly homeless come to the camp.

MARTIN: So, what has been the posture of the city toward this encampment to this point? Has the - has the policy of the city been to mainly ignore it or has it been to try to discourage people from staying there through whatever means?

Mr. COLE: I loved to say we'd done, you know, six-month or year study and thoughtful measured approach to what we did. It really was the stabbing that brought it into the light of day. We think the camp has been there for 15 or 20 years on property that, you know, the State Highway Department, you know, does not allow, you know, residences or any sort of camping on that type of property.

But once the issue kind of came to the forefront, I think Nashville's leaders, and particularly our mayor, were thoughtful and asked the Metropolitan Homelessness Commission, which is the group of community leaders, government officials, business people, people from the faith community that has been operating for about last four years, asked us to kind of monitor the situation and make a recommendation about what should happen with the camp.

And while the, you know, the legal standing of where it actually sits is tenuous, we could not make a recommendation of closure that didn't jeopardize individual's lives or jeopardize their circumstances. And I think it's refreshing that the leadership in Nashville were willing to take that political risk and go along with those recommendations.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about how two American communities are confronting the issue of homelessness. Our guests are Eric Cole. He's a city councilman in Nashville, where officials have decided to allow a tent city for homeless people to remain and are also considering enhancing services to this area, as I understand it.

Also with us is Peter Brown. He's the community services manager for Ventura, California. There, authorities have instituted an ordinance that allows people to sleep in their cars in some areas of the city. Peter, you know, homelessness as we know, is this classic, not-in-my-backyard phenomenon. People will be, well, you know, I've compassion for folks, but I really don't want them sleeping literally my backyard.

As it sounds to me, like, you kind of have been working through this policy with people who are directly involved with stakeholders, if you want to call them that, has it been opened up to public comment? And are you getting public reaction to the idea?

Mr. BROWN: You know, Michel, the problem of homelessness is one of compassion and also one of quality of life. And you have to balance those. It's always a delicate balance. There's 106,500 people that live in the City of Ventura or visit the City of Ventura on any given day. We're a beach community, just north of Los Angeles, just south of Santa Barbara. It's very much a tourist-driven economy. And we have about 750 or so homeless people on any given day. Balancing the needs in the compassion part with the expectation of quality of life in a very high income area is always difficult.

A couple of years ago, we were working toward locating sites for a year-round emergency shelter which is not available - currently don't have one in the City of Ventura. I got about seven sites were located or identified and those seven sites went to our city council and, therefore, it made the newspaper, those seven sites. I got about 200 letters and a 199 of them said we need that in our community, but don't pick this location because it's close to my house, my business, my school, the places I like to go. The 200th letter said you're all branch of freaks. Why would you even consider this?

MARTIN: To that point there are those who would say, you know, it's great that Ventura is trying to take a practical approach to an obvious issue, but there are others who would say, really, the solution here is affordability, some kind of affordability, some kind of a shelter.

Mr. BROWN: When a police officer in the City of Ventura goes out on a call about somebody who is homeless, and usually somebody was sleeping in a park with a backpack and is dirty and smoking a cigarette - which, by the way, none of those things are illegal. The police officer in the City of Ventura has three choices: to interface with the homeless person and walk away, to take them to county jail, which is a $135 per day, not including the officer's time of being off the streets, or to take them to the emergency room which costs 10 to 20 times the amount of taking them to a jail.

The City of Ventura needs a fourth option which is a 50-bed year-round emergency shelter, which on average costs about $25 or $35 per day depending on which services are provided.

MARTIN: And, Eric, it's my understanding that there had been plans last summer to try to evict residents at least from one of these 10 cities but the eviction notices were suspended by the mayor.

So, what now - now what the cities decided to just acknowledge the presence is there, what next?

Mr. COLE: The biggest issue, as we see at Nashville, is, you know, there's really - success is equal - is the sum of really three things as we've explored it in our commission: housing plus case management plus income.

And trying to put those pieces together is difficult and a bit expensive. But as Peter points out, it's much less expensive than the status quo which is, you know, recidivism and incarceration over and over, and then emergency room care as opposed to primary care.

So, we've really focused on this population in this one tent intensity, tried to put case management services around these folks, tried to, you know, make sure that they are on all of the federal benefits that they qualify for, trying to assist them, you know, to get into some form of employment.

Incidentally, we think that somewhere between 25 and 35 percent of the folks that live in tent city are employed now. But they've got to have these other pieces, so that there is a way to manage the various issues, the addiction the mental illness, the other issues that are - that are impeding them. But also, you know, a place to lie down at night that is safe and is their own place and add that to a level of income. And we've been able to move some into some subsidized housing that we have here in Nashville.

Again, you know, our numbers are very small. We've identified 32 people and we've moved all but six into that sort of housing. And as soon as we moved them in, 30 more people, 40 more people come back in once the summer rolls around. So, it's one of these problems that will always - it continues to magnify. But we are seeing some limited success with the population we focused on.

MARTIN: And that was going to be my final question to each of you. How do you think we should think about the steps that each of your cities is taking? Is this sort of making lemonade out of lemons? How should we think about this, Peter?

Mr. BROWN: I think the key to the way people think about it is that these are progressive, out of the box, sort of temporary creative solutions with our eye on the larger prize - which is what Eric was talking about - which is combining housing, case management and income solutions.

We, the City of Ventura employs a caseworker, works with these chronically homeless individuals in order to get the resources and income that they're already eligible for. Think of us as a city that has compassion but also is very much concerned about the quality of life. And so, we're trying to strike that delicate balance.

MARTIN: Eric?

Mr. COLE: For a southern, you know, metropolitan city like Nashville, revenue is extremely scarce. Political will on these issues is often hard to find. It's not just as we look at it and talk about it, it's a community issue, it's not just a government issue. But we really feel like we've got to have the entire community working together: business leaders, the government, the nonprofit sector, and the faith community to ultimately solve the problem. And that's what we're struggling day in and day out to make a difference in one, you know, one person's life each time.

And I really do see it as a progressive evolution of a city like Nashville, that is, you know, on the verge of million people metropolitan-wide and is, you know, is growing but has to deal with these issues while we look at all the other issues that face us.

MARTIN: Eric Cole is a city councilman in Nashville. And Peter Brown is the community services manager for Ventura, California. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. BROWN: Thank you.

Mr. COLE: Thanks so much for having me.

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