At the convergence point of a deadly pandemic and the coldest weather of the year, a plan in Nashville for an overflow shelter for people without homes is drawing criticisms from community advocates who have been frustrated by the city’s response to homelessness throughout the COVID-19 crisis.

Nashville’s cold weather shelter opened this week to serve as a respite from freezing temperatures. It’s a single room with cots and a capacity for 250 to 300 people (plus pets) when temperatures drop to 28 degrees or below. When all other homeless shelters are full, the room at the Nashville Fairgrounds will serve as the last-chance shelter.

On Monday night, the first night the shelter was open, 54 people — and one dog — sought refuge at the shelter. On Tuesday, the shelter took in 69 individuals and three dogs.

Grouping scores of individuals into a single room at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic poses significant risks for mass infections, advocates say.

Nonprofit organizations serving people without shelter have been advocating for hotel vouchers using federal COVID-19 relief funding since the onset of the pandemic — a measure city officials have thus far declined to pursue.

“We’re thankful for the work Metro and other providers are doing to offer shelter to our friends on the streets this winter in the midst of the ongoing pandemic,” said Lindsey Krinks, co-founder of Open Table Nashville.

Lindsey Krinks, co-founder, Open Table. (Photo: Open Table)
Lindsey Krinks, co-founder, Open Table. (Photo: Open Table)

“Until there is enough housing for all, we believe that providing hotel vouchers is a safer and more dignified option than congregate shelters,” she said.

Metro officials say they have put in place protocols to make sure people who may be COVID-19 positive are cared for properly. Volunteers will ask individuals about whether they are experiencing symptoms before transporting them to the shelter.

People will be asked to observe social distancing and wear a face mask at all times.

Those who have symptoms will be asked to go to an isolation shelter, said Joseph Pleasant, a spokesman for the Nashville Fire Department. Those individuals will be given an option for a COVID test and remain there until the results are received.

Asked to describe plans in the event of an outbreak at the cold weather shelter, Pleasant noted the city’s COVID-19 shelter for individuals who are ill with the virus remains operational in separate buildings at the Fairgrounds.

Nashville’s plans are in stark contrast to other cities that have taken more robust measures to housing the homeless during the pandemic.

In Chattanooga, the Regional Homeless Coalition has secured concessions to reduce the spread of coronavirus. Anyone seeking shelter is given a rapid COVID-19 test.

Those who test positive aren’t turned away — they are sent to an alternative shelter by the region’s Salvation Army.

Scores of cities have offered hotel room vouchers to keep individuals warm and safe but

Nashville thus far has declined to use COVID-19 federal dollars for this purpose.