Why Nashville's Solution to Homelessness is a Model For Other Cities

Have a roof above our heads is among humanity's basic needs. Nevertheless, in the United States, one out of 500 people is without a home. Instead of providing solutions to the problem, policymakers often consider the homeless population a nuisance. They want to drive them away and make them subject of onerous laws, like one that bans people from offering them food.

Many homeless people have criminal records or suffer from drug addiction, which further marginalizes and stigmatizes them. However, the people of one city, Nashville, Tenn., are determined to make a change. They are allowing their homeless population to obtain a room to and pay monthly rent as low as $50.

In 2005, Nashville established the Metropolitan Homelessness Commission as part of its 10-year strategic plan. Now fast-forward eight years: something concrete has comes to fruition, an organization called How's Nashville.

Unlike traditional programs that emphasize getting homeless people treatment for addiction and mental health or offering job training, Nashville adopted the Housing First idea by partnering with the like-minded national non-profit 10,000 Homes. The commission understands that offering the homeless a patchwork of help here-and-there will not solve anything substantial, and that the biggest obstacle the homeless face is not having a home.

If you suffer from addiction to alcohol or other drugs, living in constant fear of rain, coldness, hunger and harassment does not help you kick the habit. If you are an ex-felon, it is hard for you to become an upstanding citizen when you can't go home at night. Therefore, How's Nashville makes providing permanent and affordable housing to the homeless its first priority. The commission's director Will Connelly said the program does not mandate people to "jump through a lot of hoops" to receive assistance.

The commission convinced large property owners in the city to offer apartments to the homeless with reduced rates, despite the reservations of some landlords on the new tenants' possible harmful effects to neighbors. Under arrangements of the program, while the minimum rent is $50, rent cannot exceed 30% of the renter's income. Through this initiative, combined with federal Section 8 housing vouchers, at least 189 people previously homeless now are no longer so. John Henry, a 51-year-old man who had been homeless since his teenage years, said, "Being in a home ... helps to clear our mind, to clear our way of thinking." Michele Bratcher, who was addicted to crack cocaine and has felony convictions that would have prevented her from renting apartments elsewhere, stopped living under bridges and put her life back on track. She said she's "been doing better. Just trying to keep my head above water, and it's working." 

Nashville's story is one of hope forged by collaboration between government and the private sector. It is also a story where human compassion shines through byzantine layers of bureaucratic institutions. "This effort truly shows how government, nonprofits, and the business community can work together to make progress on reducing homelessness," Nashville Mayor Karl Dean said. While not every city can have landlords as easy to persuade as those in Nashville who provide low-cost apartments to the homeless, every city can and should embrace Housing First" As Director Will Connelly said, it is easier for the homeless to "deal with their problems" when they have housing. With Housing First in mind, each city can find unique solutions using policy incentives and public-private partnerships.