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Oh no you don’t…

January 9, 2013

A new market analysis said the SoBro district in Downtown Nashville could be primed for a big business boom, but that the homeless problem there might make development difficult.

via Report: Homelessness Hinders Downtown Development – NewsChannel5.com

During the debates around the funding and construction of the Music City Center one of the questions that I regularly asked the leaders of the project is what impact the MCC project would have on the existing homeless ministries and population headquartered in the SoBro district of Nashville. It was clear to me at the time that a convention center designed to be a showcase for the city would likely come into conflict with the presence of a large homeless community that has been present in that area for as long as anyone could remember. Certainly, the location of the Nashville Rescue Mission across the street is the most visible presence, but the Campus for Human Development is just a few blocks up — an organization that is well loved and respected by the churches of Nashville, and has expanded it’s facilities within the past couple of years. The fact is that the primary source of services for the homeless of Nashville are located in SoBro, and I could see storm clouds brewing. 

Of course, as I expected, no leaders of the MCC project were willing to address the question at the time. In at least two public forums where I asked about the future of the homeless in the area, they side stepped the question, changed the subject, and at best made some sort of mumbling about how the project would raise property values and spur area development. They knew, as I knew, that the presence of the homeless were a problem for their showcase, but as was typical for the circumstances they refused to address the long-term consequences of their project. 

This innocuous little report quoted above is the first shot across the bow of a larger battle over the presence of homeless folks around the MCC. The powers that be have made sure that their hands are clean of the speaking the difficult truth that tourist focused commercial development and guys with stringy hair, reeking of wine and sweat, who aren’t hesitant to ask for a spare dollar don’t mix too well. Don’t get me wrong . . . I’ve spent too many nights at Room in the Inn programs and understand that homeless folks find themselves in that plight for a variety of reasons, and that many are hardworking who have simply fallen on bad times. However, the hard core, long term homeless are more often than not addicted to a variety of substances, and or struggling with mental health issues, and aren’t always the most rational and reasonable folks to deal with. But for more years than I can remember, the SoBro region, especially South of Lafayette (behind the Rescue Mission) has been a refuge for those whose backs are up against the wall, and that refuge is in danger of being taken away in the desire to create commercial development to support the monstrosity that we’ve built. The MDHA commissioned report provides the first mention of what will likely be an ongoing “problem” in the coming years, and I will not be surprised when efforts are made to move the Rescue Mission, and then the Campus for Human Development to other locations away from the city core. 

For all of the hopes of some of my progressive friends back when he was elected, Mayor Karl Dean has had a dismal record of failure when it comes to dealing with the issue of homelessness in Nashville. One would think as a former public defender that he would have some sense of the issue and some of the needs of that community. Yet, outside of some basic lip service, Mayor Dean has not seemed particularly interested in the social safety net side of governmental services, and certainly not the challenges of the homeless community. In the days after the 2010 floods the mayor’s office was noticeably missing in trying to address the needs of the former tent city residents, leaving the question of how to deal with this population to a set of dedicated volunteers and clergy. The Metro Homelessness Commission has languished during the Dean administration, some of which can be attributed to its members, but part of which is reflective of a mayor who is more concerned with creating new business opportunities than assisting those who are down and out. I wish I could think that the report above isn’t more than it is, but given the record so far I can’t imagine that this isn’t a sign of rough waves ahead. 

It will be important in the days ahead for people of faith to speak up for the “least of these” and insist that solutions be developed that don’t uproot services for the homeless in the pursuit of growth and profitability. It will be crucial for people of faith to reaffirm our support of these important ministries, and to speak loudly and with one voice that while we understand the challenges of having a major tourist center and a large homeless population in the same vicinity, the homeless were here first (!) and that they have every right to remain where they have always been. I will not be surprised if we will have to do more than taking homeless guys into our congregations once a week, and have to hit the streets to ensure that the basic rights on these men and women are not trampled on in the pursuit of the almighty dollar. 

Keep your eyes open. There’s probably more to come on this story. 

The Disappearing Advocate

November 20, 2012

Okay, it seems time to come up for air after far too long of being dormant on this site. I suppose one could argue that the silence from my office on Nashville issues is a sign that all is well, and in some ways they crisis mode that seemed to be inaugurated during Karl Dean’s first term (not always originating with him) has settled down a bit. There was a time when we seemed to bounce from event to event — English only . . . Metro General Hospital . . . the convention center . . . the fairgrounds (and for me the potential impact of that closing on Hickory Hollow) . . . and then the floods. It was an eventful first term for Mayor Dean and I suppose that his reelection led to a collective sigh and a desire to just mozy along without any drama. Yes, there was a property tax increase, but given the anti-tax climate of this state the debate was relatively quiet and the rhetoric was pretty muted. There have been school board issues — but we’ve had drama in the Metro Schools for years and for the most part they’ve ceased to be news.

In the calm after a season of controversy and difficulty, it’s been easy to cast my interest in the politics of Nashville aside. Yet, some of my silence has been due to the continuing belief that all politics is ultimately local, and my focus on the politic of our adopted community (Old Hickory) which didn’t leave a lot of time for the broader concerns of Nashville. The things that happen here – be they a zoning change or the opening of a new business – don’t necessarily resonate with other Nashvillians . . . even though they are vitally important to my neighbors. And thus it’s been easy to sit on the back porch and keep my vision limited to the streets around me, failing to look up at the horizon and the big city down the road.

I wish I could say that I’m back and that I’m going to be more diligent to offering commentary about the city that I love, but I know myself, know my schedule, and know that life often throws curves. This post is being written as much to say “I’m still here . . . I haven’t gone away” as anything substantive. And yet, I really WANT to get back to writing here as I ‘m convinced that engaged conversation offers the creative solutions to the problems we face.

We live in a difficult time. Our society as a whole is deeply polarized, with competing visions of what life in America is supposed to look like. The tension between the needs of neighborhoods and residents of Nashville and the businesses those residents work for continues to be present, with some thinking that economic development is a reflexive “anything business wants” stance while other of us believe that it represents intentional thinking about the kind of place in which we want to live, which may limit business expansion and development at times. Our city is both vibrant in some places, but very much in decay in others, and in spite of the rhetoric and desire of the Nashville Chamber and the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, we are far from a world class city. We may look good on TV on Wednesday nights, but there are all sorts of neighborhoods that Hayden and Connie are avoiding in taping their show.

What worries me is two comments in heard recently. The first came in a conversation with a long-time advocate for the poor in our city about the new TV show. I was describing the Power’s Booth character, the Belle Meade business who was pulling the political strings behind the scenes and this advocate said (somewhat jokingly but with a serious look on his face), “Oh, I didn’t know that this show was a documentary.” The second comment came in a conversation with a long-time judge the other day in which he noted that “…the Chamber of Commerce is running this city.”

While neither comment surprised me (for they reflect thoughts I’ve had for quite a while) it’s troublesome that it’s become so blatant that  folks openly proclaim it. It was blatant in the debate over the Great Hearts Charter proposal that was ultimately rejected by the school board (with the subsequent punishment by the powers that be who were shocked to see the people rise up with a different opinion than their own). It was blatant when the Tennessean, a paper founded on truth-telling in the face of power, published one of the most bizarre endorsements in their history in which they provided all the arguments why they shouldn’t endorse the republican candidate for president and then endorsed him anyway. There is a particular group with a particular vision of what this city should look like, and Lord help you if your vision is just slightly different.

Don’t get me wrong . . . the people who have been pulling the strings aren’t necessarily bad people (they aren’t our Nashville soap opera villian). I tend to believe (naively some would say) that they want the best for the city. However, in most cases they tend to believe that their vision is the only vision, and that anyone who questions the wisdom of their vision or has a different vision is an enemy to be attacked. In a “my way or the highway” world, this culture of personal attack is out of control, and our ability to come together as “one people, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” dries up and turns to dust.

We have to find a new way – a way that recognizes that governance (be it at the city, state, or federal level) can never be effective when it’s about power and control rather than “we, the people.”

For me, that happens when people sit down across the divide and talk with one another about the problems we face. It happens when we invest the time in creative conversation, recognizing our valid differences, but trying to find the places of common ground where we can move forward.

When we do so, a strange thing rises up – the sense of hope. Hope blooms when people think about the possibilities and then come up with the means to bring that vision to reality. Hope springs forth when transparency takes precedence over back room dealings and people begin to feel heard. Hope is the force that brings forth change, and without it the polarization continues and we fail to be everything that we are supposed to be.

It’s time for some hope in our city. Let’s come together and see if we can find some.

Everyone gets knocked off their feet

May 31, 2012

My friend never thought he would need it — until he did.

He discovered that need several years ago when his mother, a woman with limited resources, was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. Her illness progressed more quickly than anyone could have imagined, until suddenly they were faced with the reality that her decline required skilled nursing care — and no insurance to pay for it.

My friend was newly married, with a young family and attending school, and there were no family resources to pay for his mother’s care. They weren’t sure what to do until someone offered that Nashville maintained a care facility for folks in their situation: the Bordeaux Long-Term Care facility.

“It was a wonderful gift,” he later told me. “The care was wonderful and we could trust that Mom would spend her last days comfortable and clean with a staff that knew how to care for her. We had all sorts of negative images about the “poor hospital,” but it exceeded our expectation, and was there when we needed it.”

We never think we might need it — until we do.

Recently, in the wake of a proposed property tax increase for the city of Nashville, various city leaders have suggested that Nashville can no longer afford to operate a safety-net health-care system for the residents of Nashville. They mention the $43 million that is directed to the Metro Hospital Authority (wrongly attributing that total amount to Nashville General Hospital when, in fact, it is split between three facilities) and suggest that other hospitals or care facilities would willingly assume the $85 million bill for uncompensated care that the authority bears each year.

They are mistaken. Several years ago, a group of advocates from the faith community met with the leaders of the various health systems in Nashville to talk about the future of Nashville General and the Metro Hospital Authority. Again and again, they told us behind closed doors that they could not — and would not — bear the burden of serving as the safety net for the city.

It was clear that the closing of the hospital would lead to people going untreated for their diseases — including treatable heart disease, cancer and other life-threatening illnesses. Likewise, skilled-care facilities like Bordeaux are even more unlikely to take on indigent patients, meaning that the families of the weakest and frailest among us would have few options for the care of their family members. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that there are people who would die sooner than they might otherwise if we did not provide the care that the Metro Hospital Authority provides.

“Well that’s a problem for THOSE people,” I can hear some say. For those of us who have health insurance through our jobs or who are able to participate in the government-funded Medicare program, it’s easy to think that the safety net is only for THOSE people — the poor, those who are sometimes seen as lazy or a drain on the system. It certainly doesn’t affect folks like US, does it? And so making a blanket statement like “let’s cut the funding to the hospital authority” doesn’t seem that painful.

But it would have been painful to a friend of mine, a former pastor and author in the area who found himself between jobs with no health insurance, when he came down with severe abdominal pain from a severely inflamed gallbladder and 100-plus stones, which required emergency surgery. With nowhere left to turn he visited Nashville General, which provided the needed treatment in spite of the fact that he had no resources for repayment. They treated him with dignity and respect, and he is a healthy, productive member of society because the people of Nashville cared enough to offer help to those down on their luck.

My friend never thought that he would need Nashville General. Most of us never do. But it’s good to know that it’s there when we need it.

Cross posted at http://www.tennessean.com/article/20120530/OPINION03/305300078/Everyone-gets-knocked-off-their-feet?odyssey=mod|newswell|text|Opinion|s

Rising again in the debate over taxes

May 16, 2012

Those who read this blog know that I have been absent from the conversation for quite a while, which likely means that no one reads this space any more. Frankly, life has been too busy out here in Old Hickory to spend a lot of time on the broader issues of our city, and in many ways it’s been a slow news cycle which hasn’t lent itself to commentary.

But here we are, moving into a heated debate on the mayor’s proposed property tax increase, which passed on first reading last night in the Metro Council. That it passed should come as no surprise for the council’s procedures pretty much demand that bills must past on first reading in order to be considered in committee and be open to the possibility of amendment. Had the council failed to adopt the budget last night, the rules related to the adoption of the budget would have meant it would have automatically gone into effect and the accompanying tax increase would have been automatically happened as well. First reading passage is normal for almost all bills simply to get them into the hopper and on the table for discussion.

I confess that I am really not in a place where I can offer comment on the property tax increase. I am, after all, in the employ of a church — a non-profit entity that is exempt from property taxes. I likewise live in a church owned residence which is also exempt. This is a tax that, because of current law and my status, I don’t participate in and as such don’t really have a place at the table. (The argument about whether churches SHOULD be exempt is a different conversation but I can say that my position often puts me at odds with our church hierarchy.)

While I can’t speak to the proposed means for increasing revenue to the city coffers, I can however speak about the need to increase revenue by what ever means is at our disposal. And I, to the dismay I imagine of friends like Councilman Robert Duval, am an advocate for increasing revenue to the city at this time.

For me it is a simple equation. For the past four years at least, city departments, especially those which deal with the social safety net, have been asked to cut their budgets again and again. For the past four years, whether we like it or not, Rich Riebling and the Mayor have been balancing the budget through tricky accounting and refinancing of the city debt, a means of simply delaying the inevitable which is upon us. We have seen a needed increase in the number of police officers in recent years, but most of the funding for those positions were through the federal stimulus, for which funding is coming to an end and must be replaced by the city. We have been engaged in the theater of “fully funding” our schools only because the school board submitted predetermined numbers generated by the mayor’s office rather than fully articulating what it costs to educate our kids. There are basic needs that need to be met in our neighborhoods, and we’ve cut to the point where there isn’t much else to cut.

Of course there are those who say that they can’t support a tax increase when this administration has squandered resources on things like the Music City Center, and a rash of corporate welfare to all sorts of companies. I understand this argument and resonate with it in many ways. I was concerned about the impact of the Music City Center on basic services, and while the administration and proponents of that project will say that it comes from a different pot of money disconnected from the city’s budget, the fact is that we made a choice to direct those visitor generated taxes toward the tourism industry without allocating any toward city services. That may be a valid choice — but it’s a choice just the same — and there were many of us who believed that it was a choice that benefited the urban core at the expense of outlying neighborhoods.

More problematic is the choice by this administration to push through corporate tax breaks for businesses like HCA, Lifepoint Hospitals, and Gaylord/Dollywood. The mayor would surely say that these bring business and new taxes from employees into Davidson County, although I would dare say that the moving of Lifepoint a couple of miles down the road from Williamson to Davidson County will not lead to a single new employee and absolutely no new business or tax opportunities. Even though I am the president of an organization charged with promoting business development, I can see from that perspective that these tax breaks tend to go to a certain group of well connected insiders and are rarely open for other businesses who may in fact be as successful in creating jobs in the community. I can think of two industrial businesses in our region who chose to locate in Davidson County and have been adding workers due to increased demand without receiving a single tax incentive to locate here. I would agree that corporate welfare on the backs of middle class workers is wrong, and yet it continues to be a reality throughout the nation, not simply Nashville, and until folks are willing to rise up and actively object to these practices, it becomes difficult for any city to lead the way without hindering the business climate, and there is no political benefit to the mayor for taking on this problem on his own.

Yet, in spite of those factors, I continue to believe that we need to increase revenue to the city budget, especially in regards to restoring funding to provide an adequate and robust social safety net. While I would prefer that our corporations bear a larger burden in funding the operation of the city which provides them workers, a transportation infrastructure, and other amenities, the primary means at this point of increasing revenue is through either increasing sales taxes (something that I think we’ve maxed out according to state law) or increasing property taxes. There aren’t a whole lot of other options.

Is there continued waste in government? Absolutely, but I remain unconvinced that it is any more significant that the extravagance that occurs in the private sector. When I look at executive salaries and perks, or walk into a Taj Mahal of corporate extravagance in a headquarters building, I can see all sorts of ways that executives are not great stewards of the shareholders money. It is, I believe, a myth that suggests that corporations are more efficient than government, for large organizations of ANY type, be it government offices or corporate headquarters, are subject to comparable levels of bureaucratic muck. Yes, there is waste in government, but recent years of cutting, cutting, and more cutting have made it significantly less, and more cuts will, as the mayor has said, cut into the muscle rather than trimming fat.

Again, I am not advocating for a property tax increase, but simply wish to acknowledge that from the easy chair it sure seems like it’s way past time to look at increasing revenue. If someone has a means for cutting waste without cutting essential services, then I would be very open to hearing about that plan.

 

A Prayer for the Metro Council

May 15, 2012

Tonight I was asked to provide the opening invocation for the Metro Council meeting. Here is what I prayed:

Creator of the Universe and provider of all,
we gather tonight as neighbors,
called together to live in this place we call home.
We come as very different people,
from many traditions and backgrounds,
with distinctive philosophies and opinions.
Yet, you have brought us together,
at this time and place,
to work toward a common vision for our city.
Grant us the grace to transcend our differences,
to take time to hear one another,
and put aside our own personal agendas for the good of all.
Help us to hear the voices of those on the edges,
the poor, the hungry, the sick,
all those who don’t often have access to the seats of power,
and may we be led to remember the least of these,
as we determine the future directions for our city.
Most of all, fill us with a great sense of hope,
that this home which you have given us,
can be reflective of your beloved community,
where peace and prosperity prevail.
Send your wisdom, send your hope, send your love,
that in the giving of these gifts,
our city will be everything that you want it to be.
May your will be done tonight, giver of light and life.

And all God’s children said, amen.

An Update on my “Occupy” legislation post…

February 8, 2012

In my previous post I made the claim that the legislature had increased the penalties of  HB2638 to felony status. I based that on early news/blog reports from the committee. However latter on last night I learned that they had instead increased the penalty from a Class C misdemeanor to a Class A misdemeanor, something that will still get you a year in jail and a whopping fine but not the loss of rights that comes with a felony conviction. I made sure to update this at the end of the post, but since many of you get this via e-mail or a blog reader, some didn’t get the update.

Much of my argument focused on this increase to felony status, and for sure my ire was raised at the specter of persons losing their right to vote and other ramifications due to camping out on public property. The penalty is not quite so dire as it seemed, which may undermine my arguments.

And yet, I still wonder if we really want to fill our jails with folks who are guilty of a crime with few victims? Yes, good arguments can be made that the encampment at the Legislative Plaza has led to increased violence, lewd acts, and even public urination. Yet we already have laws on the books that allow for prosecution of those who engage in such behavior. There will likely always be folks whose behavior puts them at odds with society, and they should suffer the consequences of their actions. But this bill attempts to suggest that the very act of camping on public property is at odds with societal values, something that I think is a bit of a jump. Is an encampment always a public nuisance? Not necessarily, and I think broadening our laws to make it so will lead to harmless folks being jailed and hit with fines they really can’t pay and someday a group of folks will be up in arms about a group being arrested, suggesting that this is a stupid law.

My concern is not with the Occupy folks.  While I may disagree over the value of their continued encampment, they have set claimed the mantle of civil disobedience and should understand that arrest and persecution are part and parcel of their work. My concern is the folks on the sidelines – folks who have no voice, who don’t have articulate wordsmiths at their beck and call – folks who will bear the brunt of this law far after the Occupy protestors have moved back to their relatively normal homes.

Laws crafted for a specific class of persons and specific situations rarely work, and often have far-reaching consequences which cause harm for years and years. This is one of those laws, and as such should be defeated.

Getting Caught Up in the Occupation

February 7, 2012

Earlier today the Tennessee State House Judiciary Committee voted to send House Bill 2638 to the full house for a vote. This bill is being presented in media as focusing on the Occupy Nashville protest encampment on the Legislative Plaza, and certainly the intent of the authors is to put an end to the encampment as quickly as possible. However what is less often mentioned is the unintended effects that this bill will have on the homeless and others throughout the state.

The bill is rather simple. It simply prohibits persons maintaining living quarters on publicly owned property. Originally, offenders would be guilty of a misdemeanor, but today in a fit of pique the sponsors amended the bill to increase the penalty to a Class A felony, with a year in jail and a $2,500 fine. That change is significant for a felony conviction causes one to lose voting rights in the state, and makes many folks ineligible to be hired in some cases. This isn’t a simply loitering conviction – this is a serious mark on one’s record.

Okay, I get it. The legislators are tired of the Occupy Nashville folks and want them gone, and they want to make sure that these folks recognize the seriousness of their actions. I won’t even try to argue for the validity of the encampment as I think far too much time and effort have been spent on the side issue of the right to remain while losing the original foci of political change.

But here is the ancillary effect. The law as written now makes it a Class A felony to camp out on ANY property deemed to be “public.” Obviously this has serious consequences for homeless folks, especially since the definition of “maintaining living quarters”  and “public” is not clearly defined. Yet, I wonder if it wouldn’t also apply to a bunch of boy scouts who get the bright idea to camp out in a city or state park that doesn’t have a designated camping area? And the result is that we take folks who may be a nuisance and turn them into major criminals.

“What’s the problem with shutting down Tent Cities?” I can hear some ask. “Aren’t homeless encampments a public nuisance?”

Maybe. But the fact remains that the issue of homelessness requires a variety of options for addressing the needs of these folks on the edge. Yes, we have the Rescue Mission and the Campus for Human Development, but talk to a few homeless guys or girls and they will tell you that they often don’t feel safe in the mass shelters, that spaces for women are limited, and that there are minimal opportunities for husbands and wives (or boy and girlfriends to stay together). I’ve met homeless who aren’t able to access the system because the system doesn’t allow for pets and they are deeply connected to their dogs and cats. And there are many who struggle with mental illness who simply can’t make the traditional residence thing work. I would love to snap my fingers and wish homelessness away, but as Jesus told his disciples “the poor will always be with us,” and in a world where there are limited resources to address homelessness, encampments may need to be an option in some cases.

Yes, in many cases this is a nuisance, but is it a crime worthy of a Class A felony? Do we really want to start filling the jails with folks on the “camping out rap?” Don’t we have too many people in jail as it is, and aren’t there better ways to deal with this issue.

Honorable men and women of the Tennessee State Legislature, I know that you want your park back, and honestly I don’t blame you. But in the approach you are taking you are carpet-bombing something that requires a surgical strike – leaving behind many innocent casualties in your wake.

Don’t do it. There are a bunch of unintended consequences that will come from this legislation as written. Don’t turn a nuisance into a major criminal act.

Update - I am now reading different reports that suggest that they did not increase this to felony status but instead made it a Class A misdemeanor. Certainly if that is true it’s better news than what I heard earlier today, but I still fear that we are going down a slippery slope with this law. 

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