NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — A strong cold front is expected to sweep across Middle Tennessee this weekend, sending temperatures into a “free fall,” with some of the coldest days of the season ahead, according to the National Weather Service.
Organizations that provide services to people experiencing homelessness have been preparing for this for months, but with both new regulations and investments changing the way many go about their lives, the full impact of this year’s winter season is yet to be seen.
Last year, Open Table Nashville recorded nearly 200 deaths among the city’s homeless— the most ever reported. The nonprofit’s co-founder, Lindsey Krinks, said it can be difficult to track a cause of death because of privacy protections.
However, a number of deaths are likely related to weather extremes, which can lead to heat exhaustion on blisteringly hot days and hypothermia on frigid nights. Krinks said at least three people died from hypothermia last year just between January and February.
“In a city like Nashville, no one should worry about freezing to death on our streets and dying from the cold, or losing fingers and toes, and feet and legs to frostbite, which is what’s happening now,” she said.
New law adds potential dangers to homeless this winter
Any time the temperature drops below 40 degrees, Krinks said people are at risk of hypothermia. Especially when their clothes are damp, or they are without some type of protection from the elements like a tent.
That’s one reason why Krinks finds House Bill 978 “incredibly problematic going into the winter months.” HB 978, which went into effect in July, made it a class ‘C’ misdemeanor for a person to camp on or near a roadway and a felony to camp on public property such as parks.
Among the data Open Table collects each year is how many homeless encampments have been closed. Since January, Krinks said over 30 camps in the city have been closed.
“Every day we are working with people who are desperate for housing. They are working toward housing. They want a roof over their heads,” she said. “That just doesn’t exist in our city during an affordable housing crisis.”
With limited affordable housing available in Nashville, Krinks said some of those people are instead going into areas that are “less safe” like under alleys or bridges, and a farther distance from resources and transportation in the metro area.
“Our friends in encampments, it’s a struggle there too,” she said. “But what they have is they often have tents, they have protection from the rain and the elements, they have warmer sleeping bags, propane canisters, heaters. Those are really important for staying warm.”
That’s why Krinks said Nashville’s Cold Weather Community Response Plan will be extremely important this year.
From Nov. 1 through March 31, volunteers with Open Table and other nonprofits canvass the streets to check on people, provide them with winter supplies and point them toward overnight shelters.
“Every year in Nashville we have people that die from hypothermia,” Krinks said. “Most of the people who die are within eye shot from the road. People can see them, but just don’t check on them, which is why our canvassing is so important.”
More than 20 other agencies are involved in the coordination and implementation of the plan each year, said Harriet Wallace, communications director for the Metro Homeless Impact Division. The main goal is to fill available shelter beds during extreme cold weather events.
“For the cold weather season, this is a well-oiled machine that has been operating for many years,” Wallace said. “We stand prepared for what this cold season is going to bring.”
According to the 2021 Nashville-Davidson County Continuum of Care Housing Inventory Count, there were 833 people staying in emergency shelters on just one night last January.
The 2022 Point-In-Time Count conducted in January this year identified 1,916 people experiencing homelessness, although only 634 were reported as unsheltered. The unsheltered count was not conducted in 2021 because of health concerns from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Expanded access to shelters, more beds becoming available
Wallace said officials are “constantly reviewing” to see if there are any new elements to add to the plan to help keep everyone safe. In contrast to the last few years, she said there will be wider access to shelters and more beds available for those in need this winter.
More than 1,000 volunteers from 90 congregations are working with Room In The Inn this year to help provide transportation to and from their places of worship, as well as warm meals and beds.
It’s an expansion from the last few years, in which health concerns caused a dip in participation.
“The last few years have been hard. We’ve lost a lot of congregations because older volunteers, they couldn’t figure out transportation with COVID,” said Room In The Inn Executive Director Rachel Hester. “But our congregations are coming back, and the need is still there.”
In the past, Hester said Room In The Inn has been able to offer as many as 30,000 beds during the 150 days of the winter season. The nonprofit is on track to offer about 15,000 beds this year.
On some of the coldest nights, Metro opens an overflow shelter to help accommodate more people. This will be the first year the overflow shelter will be activated when the temperature reaches 32 degrees. In the past, the shelter was only opened when temperatures hit 28 degrees.
“If and when they get full, we take those folks in,” Wallace said. “We’re the only shelter that allows pets and allows families, so that’s really where the bulk of our attendees come from, those with pets and those with families.”
Wallace said the new temperature threshold will nearly double the number of days the overflow shelter is open. Last winter, Metro’s overflow shelter was open roughly 20 days.
However, the number of people the overflow shelter is able to accommodate is dependent on the staff available. At one-point last year when several people called out sick, the Salvation Army stepped in to open an extended overflow shelter site to help serve more people.
“The Salvation Army was a great partner last year,” Wallace said. “That was them opening it up to support us and the number of people. We never ran out of space– that’s a big building– but we didn’t have enough staff members to support the people who were coming in.”
How new investments could help
Hester said it’s difficult to gage the impact Tennessee’s new law banning public camping may have on shelters this winter. However, with a recent approval of $50 million in funding from the American Rescue Plan, Wallace believes there may actually be a gradual dip in need in Nashville.
The Metro Council voted Oct. 4 to approve the appropriation of funds, which council members said would be used to help people get off the streets and into housing. Wallace said the city is already working to expand Mobile Housing Navigation sites and hotel rooms for gap housing.
“There’s a potential that we could see a dip in the need for the shelter this year because of the work, thanks to that $50 million investment, that is already underway” she said. “We’re not going to have 500 to 1,000 people off the street in the next couple of weeks, but we are chipping away at that number.”
While “thrilled” about the investment, Krinks said there are still “a lot of gaps to be filled” to help people who are facing homelessness in Nashville, including year-round, low-barrier shelters and a reevaluation of legislation like HB 978.
“That’s the beginning, definitely not the end,” she said. “We know the answer to the crisis that we’re facing isn’t to ban or criminalize or close more camps right now. The answer is to create more affordable, accessible, low-barrier housing.”
Krinks said people can help make an immediate impact this winter by volunteering or donating winter supplies. Common needs are tents, sleeping bags, blankets, thermal socks, gloves and propane canisters.
“It’s up to all of us in Nashville as a community who looks out for each other to check on folks when we see them,” she said. “Check on your neighbors. It’s really important.”
People can reach out to area non-profits like Room In The Inn and Open Table Nashville to find out more information about how they can help. To find out more information about cold weather shelters, visit www.coldweathernashville.com.
“It is going to take all of us. We have to let people know who are moving here how you get involved,” Hester said. “Maybe you do a collection of socks in your neighborhood, maybe you collect coats at your congregation or neighborhood. There’s a place for everybody.”