The Salvation Army challenges Nashville’s views on homelessness

Jul 16, 2019 | by Brad Rowland

The Salvation Army challenges Nashville's views on homelessness

By: David Ibata

A local honky tonk owner got so frustrated with the presence of homeless people in downtown Nashville, Tennessee, he ] produced and distributed a video showing them sleeping on stoops and begging in the streets. Tourists, a narrator says gravely, "come from across the globe to see what everyone is talking about, but when they get here, this is what they will remember."

City leaders got the message. The Nashville Metro Council this spring debated a bill that would ban panhandling at bus stops, sidewalk cafes, day care centers and schools; near banks, ATMs and business entrances; and along certain streets popular with visitors.

Major Ethan Frizzell, area commander of The Salvation Army, is taking a different approach. On May 31 at Schermerhorn Symphony Center, he announced the #90 Day Challenge to address chronic homelessness through engagement and street-level case management in the Nashville Downtown District.

Speakers included Commissioner Danielle Barnes of the Tennessee State Department of Human Services; Commander Gordon Howey of the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department; local business people, and Nat Kendall-Taylor, CEO of the Frameworks Institute, a national think tank.

Walker Mathews, an advisory board member, and his wife Renée presented a $50,000 check to support the addition of a Salvation Army case manager for the #90 Day Challenge.

The Nashville Area Command also has partnered with The Contributor, a newspaper sold by homeless and formerly homeless residents. Major Frizzell has committed to writing a twice-monthly column, and the Army helps pay for its placement in the paper.

"Two of our donors asked if we were familiar with their work," Major Frizzell said. "Did I see The Contributor as an asset, a positive nudge to employment, or was it panhandling?"

Major Frizzell met with Cathy Jennings, The Contributor's volunteer executive director – its staff, except for the freelancers who write the stories, work without pay – and came away impressed.

"I'm challenging poverty bias both in language and experience in Nashville, and I thought The Contributor would be a wonderful place to challenge the community and use behavioral insights to create improvement," he said. "Where better to have a conversation about alleviating poverty than in a newspaper of microentrepreneurs, bought by people who support these micro-entrepreneurs?"

Started in 2009 as a nonprofit social enterprise, The Contributor comes out every other week. The papers are sold by independent vendors who are trained and receive a yellow badge and 10 free copies to start out. Each vendor purchases his or her papers at 50 cents a copy and sells them for $2 apiece, the difference being theirs to keep.

More than 3,200 vendors have sold in excess of 6 million copies of The Contributor over the last 10 years, generating more than $15 million in income for themselves. Seventy percent of those selling The Contributor for at least six months have obtained housing, the organization says.

Jennings said she and the major "both feel people who live in our communities without homes are still our neighbors. All our quality of life is bound together. We rise together, we fall together, we can't be separated."

"We publish a newspaper, and that paper has all sorts of purposes," Jennings said. "It's a real newspaper. We have people write stories for us. Some of our vendors contribute, too. We speak to social justice issues and try to give a voice to people in the community who don't have a voice."

Half of The Contributor's support comes from newspaper sales – its circulation is about 10,000 – and half, from donations. At the moment, it has about 300 vendors trained and 150 selling.

Jennings tells of a former TV cameraman who fell and broke his hip, was in rehab and tried to start a business. Then 2008 happened, "when everything fell apart." The man ended up living in a barn. He started selling The Contributor, bought a lawnmower and started mowing peoples' lawns. Today, he has a riding mower, a truck, a trailer and a small house outside the city.

"Something clicks when someone starts selling the paper," Jennings said. "It's a business. It's dignity. They make relationships with the customers they've sold to, the people who've helped them regain their sense of dignity and purpose."

Major Frizzell has a three-part strategy "to introduce the language of neighboring" to the homelessness discussion: First, the Army encourages a public narrative that recognizes everyone who lives in Nashville is a Tennessee neighbor. "By humanizing our neighbors, it helps increase the public will for support."

Second, the Army aims to work with Nashville Metro government on the city's strategic plan to reduce the lived experience of homelessness.

Third, the Army will introduce a prompted journal among those experiencing homelessness. "A prompted journal walks a client through the change process The Salvation Army uses, all behaviorally driven, so they can choose and prioritize their quality of life goals," Major Frizzell said.

The major's articles first appear in The Contributor and are then posted online on The Salvation Army of Nashville's blog.

"This allows The Salvation Army to be very transparent," Major Frizzell said, "and allows us to be an active partner in designing the policies of a major city."

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