In April, the director of sales and marketing for the Millennium Maxwell House Hotel read a story about the critical need for shelter for people experiencing homelessness during the pandemic.
She thought the historic hotel near Metro Center could play a role.
“We are here and would love to help,” Christina Jones wrote in an April 29 email to Dr. Michael Caldwell, the director of Nashville’s public health department and Dr. Alex Jahangir, chair of Nashville’s COVID-19 task force.
“Please let me know how we can,” she said.
The offer to provide hotel rooms got an enthusiastic endorsement from advocates like Lindsey Krinks, co-founder and interim co-director of the anti-poverty agency, Open Table.
Krinks initially linked Jones with city officials by email, saying “I hope you’ll follow up soon. As you know many of us in the outreach community believe we need to have isolated units like hotel rooms for our friends on the streets.”
But no one in city government has yet followed up, apart from a polite acknowledgement from Caldwell who told Jones: “I have forwarded your email and information to my other colleagues at Metro government so they can be aware of you.”
The city’s response to implementing pandemic-related policies and services for people experiencing homelessness has frustrated and aggravated advocates for months.
The frustration goes beyond the failure to act on an offer from one hotel.
And it only grew last week when city officials announced they would be providing hotel vouchers to some individuals who have the virus, particularly in neighborhood hotspots with large immigrant communities.
The vouchers won’t cost the city a dime. They will be paid for by federal CARES Act dollars, according to Metro health officials.
“In May we were told hotels did not meet the guidelines,” necessary to house homeless individuals during the pandemic, Paula Foster, executive director with the Tennessee Conference on Social Welfare and chair of the Nashville Davidson County Continuum of Care Homelessness Planning Council, said Thursday.
“Then this morning I found out that hotels have agreed to take in others,” said Foster, who emphasized she supported the policy to provide vouchers to immigrants and refugees.
“The question remains for us why this did not happen with the homeless.” she said.
Foster said homeless-serving agencies have repeatedly asked to be part of decision-making by city officials about plans to keep individuals without homes safe and healthy.
On May 27 the homeless council sent a letter to Mayor John Cooper with a set of six urgent recommendations for planning, housing, funding and services.
None of the recommendations have yet been followed, said the Rev. Ingrid McIntyre, executive director at Open Table Nashville Village at Glencliff and a member of the city’s Continuum of Care Homeless Planning Council.
McIntyre said the city’s planning has been without the advice of Nashville’s homeless advocates, including national experts based here. The location of a shelter at the Fairgrounds was created without input from experts as were plans to create a women’s shelter at the Municipal Auditorium, she said.
“Never have we been asked about any sort of response,” McIntyre said. “I don’t understand why the city’s homelessness planning council was not consulted, ever. And we do this stuff everyday.”
McIntyre’s opinion is that the Millennium Maxwell House Hotel is not an ideal location for homeless individuals. There are too many indoor lobbies where individuals might socialize, she said.
On Monday, after hearing of plans to provide vouchers to others in the city, McIntyre hit the phones to find motels willing to take in homeless men and women.
She has lined up medical care, transportation and food and, finally, at least three willing motel managers. All she needs is the go ahead, and the vouchers, from the city. So far, she has gotten an acknowledgement her email was received, she said.
“We just need to hear back,” she said.
Some homeless-serving agencies have taken their own small-scale steps to provide hotel rooms to people with no place else to go.
Ty Brown, executive director for Nashville Launch Pad, raised funds to rent rooms in extended stay motels for the young people his agency serves. Typically the nonprofit works with churches who provide space with mattresses to teens, many of them LGBQT, who need shelter during cold-weather nights.
But between March 16 and May 15, as churches began to close down due to the virus, the group began using limited funds to rent rooms, expanding their usual youth-focused mission to house women and children who had no other safe options, Brown said.
“None of our young people feel comfortable in the mission,” he said. “When you have them in a hotel room where they can keep their stuff, take a shower when they want, use WiFi — it was an upgrade for them. I wish it was a bigger priority for the city. It’s going to be really hard, even if COVID goes away, to get back to mattresses on the floor.”
Tennessee Lookout has sought comment from Metro Health officials, but has not received a response.