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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. 

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