Is Music City Becoming the Meanest City in America?

The homeless situation in Nashville is far worse than city leaders pretend. Music City’s lack of affordable housing, and constant police harassment of homeless people, is a disgrace. There is literally nowhere for homeless people to sit, walk or go to the bathroom without fear of being arrested for trespassing.

Homeless advocates in Nashville contend that the "Music City" designation conceals the extent of repression and inhumanity that homeless people must face from city officials and police.

by Richard Aberdeen

In July and August of 2013, I interviewed 35 homeless and formerly homeless individuals in Nashville, Tennessee. Virtually all of them say they have been harassed, cited and arrested multiple times for trespassing, sometimes while waiting for a bus and sometimes when standing near a bench where others were sitting. Often, they were harassed and arrested even when they were not acting any differently than other non-homeless persons in their immediate vicinity, who were not arrested.

At taxpayer expense, our morally bankrupt city leaders have removed some public benches that homeless people used to sit on. Now, new benches with bars in the middle have been installed so they can’t lie down. Homeless people say there are no public restrooms for them to use and virtually no drinking fountains are available.

In Nashville, there is literally nowhere for homeless people to sit, walk or go to the bathroom without fear of being arrested and carted off to jail for trespassing. Most say they have been jailed for two or more days on multiple occasions, and fined significant amounts for the “crime” of being poor.

The homeless say some Nashville police officers try to be fair, while others are deliberately mean to them, going out of their way to constantly harass, cite or arrest them. They are routinely criminalized for trespassing, obstructing a passageway, and doing other things that tourists and the non-poor are not arrested for. They are frequently kicked out of public parks by police.

A man who had only been homeless for two days told me he had already been harassed twice by the police when asking passers-by for directions to the mission.

Many homeless people report that they have been arrested for public intoxication when they were sober and carrying no alcohol or drugs. Several claim the police routinely search their belongings without probable cause, and many say their tents, backpacks and other belongings have been confiscated or destroyed by authorities.

The homeless situation in Nashville is far worse than city leaders pretend. Most of the 35 people I interviewed said they have been homeless over a year in the Nashville area. Several said they have been homeless more than seven years. One day, while walking only a few short blocks from the downtown bus terminal to Church Street and then back, I interviewed 13 people who said they were homeless, while many others passed by who appeared to be.

When tourists are expected or when other large events are scheduled, homeless people say that the Nashville police conduct general sweeps of the downtown area, arresting groups of people for appearing to be poor.

A homeless man on crutches said he was arrested for trespassing for walking across a store parking lot diagonally instead of going around the long way on the sidewalk. Several said they have been harassed and sometimes cited when selling a homeless newspaper.

Homeless people in Nashville struggle under the burdens of poverty and police harassment. Richard Aberdeen photo

One man told me he was arrested for obstruction while sitting on a downtown step simply because one of his shoes was touching a public sidewalk. A formerly homeless woman said she has witnessed numerous homeless individuals arrested for trespassing while walking in public alleyways and on other public taxpayer-funded property. She said the police rarely volunteer their name or badge number and some become angry when asked.

Several people say their shoes and other belongings have been stolen at the mission and some say they have been physically harmed.

Some told me they have been arrested even when not homeless at the time, just because they appeared to be poor. Several homeless veterans told me the police show them no respect for being veterans and harass them just as badly as the rest. We as taxpaying citizens of conscience should stand united and immediately demand that our city leaders cease and desist using our tax dollars to harass, cite and arrest people for the “crime” of being poor.

We expect police officers to protect us from real criminals who murder, rape and steal, rather than to waste their time and our tax dollars harassing, citing and arresting citizens because they are poor. Does the mayor’s office and city council vainly imagine they can get away with such ongoing violations of basic human and civil rights, morality and common decency, without God in heaven and the rest of us noticing?

It is less expensive to house the homeless than for cities to repeatedly arrest and run them through legal and service systems. And it is better for business and, much less of a public safety and health risk and expense, when the basic needs of everyone are met.

Music City’s lack of affordable housing, lack of basic common health sense and common decency to even provide public restrooms and ongoing harassment of the poor, is an open shame in America.

It was reported that last year alone, more than thirty citizens died in the Nashville area because they were homeless, including one who froze to death on a downtown church’s steps. And, that is more than thirty American citizens too many.

May all citizens of the United States who fear God unite together and demand that our cities begin immediately constructing enough affordable housing and in the meantime, demand that our immoral leaders provide portable toilets so citizens don’t have to live in fear of being arrested for doing what nature requires of us all.

Let’s demand that our cities immediately begin construction of facilities where the homeless can shower, be connected to job opportunities, health, food, shelter and other valuable services and freely congregate, without constant fear of physical harm, harassment, citation and arrest.

Richard Aberdeen is a Nashville author, songwriter and advocate for the homeless and poor. He is the founder of Freedom Tracks Records, a Nashville independent record label focusing on issues related to poverty, health and human rights.

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