Despite being among the wealthiest areas in the United States, Williamson County does not have a single permanent homeless shelter, and is estimated to have anywhere from 750-1,000 people experiencing homelessness at any given time.
While those in that predicament often endure a unique set of challenges on a daily basis, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has made an already difficult situation even more difficult. With companies furloughing and laying off employees by the hundreds of thousands across the state, those experiencing homelessness have even fewer paths to escape their predicament.
The Williamson County Homeless Alliance
In terms of organizations combating homelessness in Williamson County, the Williamson County Homeless Alliance (WCHA) is currently the only organization offering shelter to those without a home. While short of having a permanent shelter, the nonprofit provides beds through a partnership with local churches, and only when certain weather conditions are met.
The coronavirus has, expectedly, however, thrown the WCHA’s normal operations for a loop.
Providing shelter to Williamson County’s homeless amid a pandemic
Ordinarily, the WCHA would allow for people to congregate into a single room where a buffet-style meal would be served, only later to be assigned to shared rooms for the night. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, however, such a setup would be impossible to adhere to.
After tossing around a bevy of ideas, WCHA leadership eventually came to a decision: put those experiencing homelessness up in hotels.
After reaching an agreement with a Franklin hotel, the WCHA began to house those struggling with homelessness at the site on March 27.
Throughout the month of April, 52 individuals were provided for, most of whom stayed multiple weeks. Taking one of the busier nights - Tuesday, April 27 - the WCHA housed 44 people, including six children.
Having to change the way it provides food, the WCHA launched an effort to not only direct its fundraising efforts towards sheltering the homeless, but also supporting local restaurants struggling amidst the pandemic.
Throughout the month of April, the WCHA supported local restaurants to the tune of almost $12,000, with WCHA staff leaving tips of 20 percent and above.
Franklin Community Church pastor Kevin Riggs, who is also a prominent member of the WCHA, said that the majority of those staying at the hotel were still working, though a sizable portion of them had been furloughed or laid off.
One of those people who was working a full-time job, but has had their struggle exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic is Mandy White, a Brentwood resident and mother of two teens.
Moving from Florida to Williamson County in November of 2019, White had secured a job as an Amazon delivery driver just one day after making the move. In late February, however, while rummaging through the back of her delivery vehicle for a package, White’s vehicle rolled forward into an object. White subsequently lost her job.
As fate would have it, just days after losing her job, the first reported case of coronavirus in Tennessee would be reported. As more and more cases would be reported, and with Williamson and Davidson counties being the epicenter of the initial outbreak, White began the frustrating process of finding a job, only to be let go just days after.
“It was like clockwork; job, no job, job, no job,” White said. “Two days of work here, and then it closes down. I think it was four days at the next one. I didn't know what to do.”
Having exhausted all of her options, White and her two teens were forced to sleep in the only shelter they had: White’s car.
Parking her vehicle at the Walmart on Dickerson Pike in Nashville, and occasionally the Opry Mills shopping mall, White and her children would sleep in that car for the duration of March. As one could imagine, being exposed in such a way would lead to frightening occurrences now and again.
“One night we were there, some guy tried to get in the car on my daughter's side,” White said. “When he couldn't get in, he went around and was trying to lift the hood, so I just honked the horn and started the car. He got scared when he realized there was someone in it and he took off.”
Despite the frightening situation, White said she prayed for the man following the event.
“I have kids to take care of, I can't afford to go without,” White said. “I was trying to figure out how I was going to take care of my kids and put food on the table for them. I don't get Medicaid, I don't get food stamps - I don't qualify. That's fine with me, but sometimes we need it.”
Determined to find some sort of stability while continuing her job hunt, White reached to as many churches as she could find. After experiencing little luck at first, she was eventually put into contact with Pastor Riggs, who that very same night, offered her a bed at the Franklin hotel.
White had also managed to secure a job at an extended stay hotel in Brentwood, which she worked at full-time for the duration of her stay in Franklin.
One factor in the WCHA’s decision to move to such a costly model of operation was that the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency could potentially reimburse those costs by up to 75%. That reimbursement, however, would only apply so long as Gov Bill Lee’s stay-at-home order was in effect.
With that order expiring on May 1, the WCHA was forced to abandon that model of operation, leaving many to seek shelter on their own again.
The ultimate goal of the WCHA
Over the course of roughly a month, the WCHA spent more than $60,000 sheltering Williamson County’s homeless amidst the pandemic. Ideally, Riggs and the rest of the WCHA would eventually like to see a permanent homeless shelter constructed in Williamson County, giving any and all people experiencing hardships a place to lie their head at night.
Though Riggs concedes that homelessness is not an issue that can be fully eradicated, what can be achieved is something he calls “functional zero,” which means establishing “a city-wide plan so when a person does experience homelessness, it's rare, it's brief and it's rapidly fixed."
Those interested in supporting the WCHA’s mission may make a tax-deductible donation through Franklin Community Development by clicking here. Additionally, those looking to support the WCHA further, or to see how to get involved are encouraged to contact Riggs at (615) 440-7553, or via email at [email protected].