How many people are homeless in Tennessee?

The benchmark “point in time” (PIT) count done on a single night in January, the dead of winter, counted 9,528 people in 2013. But that count does not include those who were in motels, couch-surfing with a friend, or who were in hidden places. A post-count study of the 2009 and 2010 results revealed that counters are most likely missing between 40-60% of the unsheltered homeless population. We believe a more realistic estimate of the homeless population to be closer to 15,880. Nor does that number include school children. In 2012, Tennessee schools reported some 14,586 homeless school children not included in the 15,880 of the general population.

If we include homeless schoolchildren, there are about 30,466 homeless people in Tennessee. Although this number is somewhat reduced in the winter as some of those people living in camps may move to warmer areas (though many do not), in the estimates of advocates who have worked in the field for many years, this number is more likely to underestimate the homeless rather than overestimate the problem.

There are not enough shelter beds in the area to house the homeless population.

What triggers homelessness?

loss_of_job_pieWe have to distinguish between the causes that lead people to become homeless in the first place from the causes of why people remain homeless. This chart from the Houston Coalition for the Homeless does a great job of summarizing why people likely become homeless in the first place (numbers exceed 100% because of multiple causes). Note, the stereotypes often spoken of,  alcohol and drugs for example (9%), or psychological problems, are actually fairly small. Many of these problems get worse the longer one is homeless though. Still, many, many people who have no permanent home do not abuse drugs and alcohol, and many, many have few severe psychological problems. And one should remember that many people in homes have both as well.

Of course, longer term causes of homelessness are more complicated, but the one essential component they seem to share is loss of support circles. Either fleeing bad home situations, fearing unsympathetic family reactions, or having lost friends and family due to distance or other causes, people find themselves without shelter, and often their problems multiply from there, not infrequently compounded by anxiety and depression.

But beyond the personal causes of homelessness, there are the even longer term societal causes. In the 1960s and 70s, the US devoted a fair number of resources to try to house and care for those on the street. In the 1980s, funds for these purposes were dramatically cut. Here is a good overview of that disaster: Homelessness in America . Obstacles to reentry to society after conviction even for minor drug offenses—”check box” roadblocks to jobs, housing, food support, and civic participation—have meant that homelessness is the only choice for those leaving prison without family or other connections. A failure to keep the minimum wage on a par with inflation means that many are caught in cycles of debt that often break down into homelessness. And finally, loose money policies and deregulation aimed at the housing market, along with tax credits aimed at the middle class, have inflated housing prices, driving rental prices higher and higher, while gentrification has often priced housing out of reach in areas once predominately low income.  None of these deeper causes is inevitable–policies could be put in place to fix these problems. Many of them would actually save taxpayers money, as it costs far more to criminalize the homeless than to help them.

Why is jail/criminalization of the homeless wrong?

People who are homeless have very little money. If you have no money, you cannot pay rent and can’t get a hotel (or only for a brief time). Everyone has a right to exist—to rest, to eat, to use the restroom, to walk and sit on public properties, and to sleep. Yet the homeless are often harassed or arrested for these very activities with the thought that this will drive them away. But this harassment makes their lives worse and makes it more difficult to get out of homelessness.

Nashville has virtually no public restrooms, and though bar patrons are as likely to urinate in public, they at least have access to the restrooms of the bars, restaurants, and stadiums they attend. Only the homeless have no place to go and very little choice about where they sleep, rest, or use the bathroom. They also know if they give in to pressure and go someplace else, they will face the same cycle of harassment. Once ticketed or arrested, the homeless can’t pay an attorney or fines if they are levied, so they often end up in contempt of court with another fine they also can’t pay, or with jail time. All of these events cruelly and unnecessarily wreck peoples lives with harassment and worry, and make it  more difficult for the homeless to get back on their feet.

But besides the personal cost, the taxpayer foots the bill, not only for the police who, though they may not want to, are expected to harass people instead of helping them, but for the court costs, attorney’s fees, and sometimes jail time. Multiple misdemeanor offenses for sleeping or sitting in public, especially with a contempt of court citation, can add up to a felony offense, and then it becomes very difficult to find a job, as many employers won’t hire you with a felony offense even if it arises out of only minor offenses. Just getting around the city to deal with the courts takes time and money. “We learned that you could either sustain people in homelessness for $35,000 to $150,000 a year, or you could literally end their homelessness for $13,000 to $25,000 a year,” – Philip Mangano, former National Homeless policy Czar to President Bush and Obama. http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2012/mar/12/shaun-donovan/hud-secretary-says-homeless-person-costs-taxpayers/

What is "housing first" and why is it a better approach to helping the homeless?

“Housing first” means getting people off the streets and into housing first, then providing help to deal with the other problems they may have. Housing first is better because it works. Although it might seem like trying to provide jobs, medical care, therapy, or addiction counseling as a condition of housing might incentivize change, in fact homelessness makes progress in everything else much more difficult.

Countless studies have now shown that we must offer housing first, not last, if we want to help people out of homelessness. An immediate connection to permanent supportive housing can ensure that over 80% of homeless individuals remain housed, even among clients with severe substance abuse and mental health conditions.

The bottom line is that it is just too difficult to battle addiction, take care of serious physical and mental health conditions or find steady employment while simultaneously battling homelessness. Contrary to popular opinion, these things are not precursors to housing. Instead, they stem from the safety and stability that comes from having a permanent home in the first place.” (from 100,000 Homes on Housing First)
Moreover, studies have also shown that housing first is less expensive than other solutions. ”We learned that you could either sustain people in homelessness for $35,000 to $150,000 a year, or you could literally end their homelessness for $13,000 to $25,000 a year,” – Philip Mangano, former National Homeless policy Czar to President Bush and Obama. http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2012/mar/12/shaun-donovan/hud-secretary-says-homeless-person-costs-taxpayers/
In fact, in Nashville estimates are that it would cost about $13,877 per year for permanent supportive housing including case management and a part time psychiatrist if needed, far less than the money wasted on criminalization of the homeless. (2013 Homelessness Report). Housing first is not only the more compassionate way to help the homeless, it is the more cost efficient way as well.

How many people are homeless in the US?


“On a single night last January, 633,782 people were homeless in the United States, largely unchanged from the year before.  In releasing HUD’s latest national estimate of homelessness, U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan cited as hopeful that even during a historic housing and economic downturn, local communities are reporting significant declines in the number of homeless veterans and those experiencing long-term chronic homelessness.”  Read HUD’s 2012 Point-in-Time Estimates of Homelessness One should note that Point-in-Time counts significantly underestimate the number of homeless in Nashville by 40%-60%, and we can expect national estimates to be similarly underestimated as well.

Who are we?

About the Tennessee Coalition for the Homeless

We are a coalition of advocates, faith groups, homemakers, concerned citizens, and people who have been or are experiencing homelessness. Though we have diverse backgrounds, we are united by our goals. We are working to house, feed, and care for those experiencing homelessness. We believe they deserve the right to be treated with respect, to receive care, and that State of Tennessee should further these goals, and at the least not make things worse by criminalizing the homeless or by hindering us from helping. It is the compassionate, it is the just, and it is the cost effective thing to do.

What are we most concerned with?

The top three issues we focus on are (1) providing food, housing, and care for the homeless, (2) ending the criminalization of homelessness—the laws, ordinances, and policing policies that unfairly affect people who are un-housed, and (3) furthering education on issues related to homelessness.