Most would consider the opportunity to eat cake, maybe drink a few beers and spend time with loved ones to be a good birthday. On Saturday, Nov. 23, 55 year-old Joe Wise of Fairview had what he called “a pretty good birthday” after a stranger had given him a warm jacket. With temperatures dropping that night into the low 30s, it would come to good use.
Wise spent that same evening at the Flying J Travel Center just off of I-840 and SR 96 in Fairview, charging his phone and watching football in the truck stop’s lounge. As the night drew closer, Wise collected his things and left to head home — in Wise’s case home wasn’t a house, an apartment or a condo — it was a $20 tent in the woods.
Wise is just one of many in Williamson County who don’t have a home. Resources for the homeless in Williamson County are sparse, with no permanent shelters in the county whatsoever, and only one temporary shelter in Franklin run by the Williamson County Homeless Alliance (WCHA).
The Williamson County Homeless Alliance
An initiative born of a “coalition of local churches, community leaders and nonprofits,” the WCHA is a nonprofit organization that aims to not only provide shelter for Williamson County’s homeless population, but to combat homelessness in its entirety.
Kevin Riggs, a pastor at Franklin Community Church and member of the WCHA, hopes that through growing the nonprofit, Williamson County could effectively reach what he called “functional zero,” establishing “a city-wide plan so when a person does experience homelessness, it's rare, it's brief and it's rapidly fixed."
“If you're able to put homeless people into housing within a certain amount of time, then you can, as a community, say that you've solved homelessness,” Riggs said. “What I mean by that is that you have that 'functional zero,' there's a plan in place. Davidson County may not ever be able to do that, they're so far behind the curve, but we're in a situation where we have the resources, we have the creativity and the numbers aren't overwhelming.”
But what are the actual numbers when it comes to homelessness in Williamson County? Riggs said it’s hard to accurately determine, but estimates on the conservative end say there are — at least — anywhere from 750 to 1,000 homeless individuals residing in the county.
What can be confirmed, however, is that during the 2018-19 school year, Williamson County Schools reported there to be at least 130 homeless students attending one of its schools, and 109 attending Franklin Special School District schools.
Williamson County’s only (temporary) shelter
While Williamson County still lacks any type of permanent shelter for people experiencing homelessness, the temporary shelter run by the WCHA remains the only option for warmth for many during the winter season.
The shelter, located at Franklin First United Methodist Church on Monday, Tuesday and Friday, and at the Church at West Franklin on Wednesday and Thursday, is only open when the temperature drops to 32 degrees and below, and for the first time this year, when temperatures rise to 90 degrees and above.
The shelter provides beds, bathrooms and showers, as well as coffee, meals and a place to watch television. The shelter costs $225 to operate a night, and Riggs said that the shelter saw an average of 11 people a night, with 40 individuals in total staying between the months of August and October — 10 of which were children. Riggs also said those numbers will likely continue to grow with the county.
“They're just more and more people who are living in their vehicles or they're couch surfing because they can't afford rent,” Riggs said. “They've lived in Williamson County for generations sometimes, so they don't have the ability to really move, or the desire to. It's kind of a two-edged sword: the more successful we are as a community — when you define success by low unemployment and high cost of living — the bigger the gap is between the rich and the poor, [and] the more people fall through the gaps. You see the positive side of economic growth, but then the negative side of it is kind of hidden.”
Williamson County’s wealth at a glance
Riggs pointing out the county’s success is worth mentioning in this context, as Williamson County is among the wealthiest counties in the United States, with Forbes magazine ranking it as the seventh wealthiest county in the country back in 2017. The median household income for Williamson County residents is $104,397, with Brentwood’s median household income alone coming in at $151,722.
As incomes increase, so do housing prices.
In June of 2019, Williamson County’s median home price was reported to be $544,950, almost double the median home price across the United States, which currently sits at $226,800. And while wages have certainly increased alongside home prices over the past few years, the rate at which home prices have increased has far outpaced wage increases.
In 2013, Williamson County’s median household income was reported to be $89,779. In 2017, the latest year of available data, that figure increased by 15.33 percent to $103,543. Using that same time frame, the median home price in Williamson County was roughly $313,000 in 2013, and increased by 37.06 percent in 2017 to roughly $429,000.
Who is homeless in Williamson County?
“[The homeless population] seems to be increasing to me because of finances; they lost their job, or just simply because the rent is going up faster than their pay is,” Riggs said. “They end up getting behind in their rent, getting evicted and then not having anywhere to go, and they don't want to leave the area because they might still have a job. The majority of people who come to the shelter will go to work the next day.”
In fact, Riggs said that more than half of those who have visited the shelter in Franklin were employed, including one government employee and one manager of a fast food restaurant.
Breaking down the demographics further, Riggs said of those who stayed at the shelter, more than 60 percent of them were women, with 60 percent being white and 40 percent being black.
The many faces of homelessness in Williamson County
One such person currently dealing with homelessness is 54-year-old Marie Perry, a South Carolina native who’s been forced to sleep in her car most nights.
Perry had lived a mostly happy and stable life up through her 40s, making a comfortable salary as a certified project manager working for companies such as Sterling Commerce. In 2005, Perry’s grandfather, who she had always been incredibly close to, passed away. A few years later it would be her mother, who Perry said had fought alcohol abuse later in life.
Wanting a fresh start, Perry decided to move to Franklin in 2016 after having visited the city during a previous business trip. Her relationship with her father had gone astray in the early 2010s, however, Perry still held out hope that their relationship could, one day, be restored.
“When I got here, I was just so excited because it was beautiful just like I remembered it being here in Franklin,” Perry said. “Dad really wanted me down [in South Carolina] — he thought I would go down there to stay in [our] little house by the beach and just never leave there. I said 'no, I'm not going to do that...' he was not nice. He had stopped saying he loved me [in 2015]. When I finish a conversation with someone, I always say 'I love you' at the end, because you just don't know when God's going to call you home.”
Shortly after arriving in Franklin, Perry had found an apartment near Cool Springs and began looking for work thereafter. Days of looking for work turned into weeks, then months, all the while her funds began to dwindle. While still continuing her hunt for work, Perry struggled with her father’s absence. Hoping to rekindle their relationship, Perry decided to make another effort to reach out to her father the best way she knew how: by writing and sending him a birthday card.
“I just told him how very much I loved him, that there were a lot of things I did not understand and that I had really wanted him to be proud of me,” Perry said. “[I wrote] that I was happy that I was here, and that I think this was going to be where I was probably going to spend the rest of my life. I didn't think I was coming back to South Carolina other than for a visit or something… every time I've gone back, it's been to bury somebody and to organize funerals.”
Less than a month later, Perry learned that her father had passed away due to heart complications. It would be during that same week that after being unable to pay rent, Perry was evicted from her apartment.
A metal home
Never having faced homelessness before, Perry slept in the only shelter she had: her grandfather’s Buick, which had been given to her decades before. After a few nights of sleeping in her vehicle, Perry remembered she had accumulated a large amount of points with the Hilton chain of hotels through previous business trips, and used them to stay at the Hilton Garden Inn for a few weeks. After exhausting her points, Perry was back to sleeping in her car, which she would park under a streetlamp in the Hilton parking lot.
“I slept in the parking lot of Hilton Garden Inn because I felt like it was safe,” Perry said. “Franklin police [eventually] came over and said, 'are you OK?' I said I [was], and I told them I had been evicted and now I can't afford to stay here.”
As the Hilton parking lot is technically private property, police warned her that hotel staff could eventually ask her to leave, but advised her that other people struggling with homelessness often use the parking lot of the Walmart on Mallory Lane as a safe place to sleep. Taking their advice, Perry would eventually make that parking lot her new home.
“Being in the car is very anxiety-ridden,” Perry said. “I've made three, four police reports since I've been in the car. I had one man that came [up to my car] several times.”
Despite her predicament, Perry did eventually find work. In the summer of 2017, Perry was hired at the women’s apparel chain Talbots at CoolSprings Galleria, as well as at Sam’s Club.
“I worked [at Sam’s Club] for six months, and at Talbots for almost two years... I was sleeping in my car next door at Walmart part of the time,” Perry said. “I have lived with some people from church, so I haven't just been in the car this whole time, but this has been a long eight-month stretch for me in the car.”
As the months passed, Perry would go from sleeping in her car to occasionally sleeping at a fellow churchgoer’s home for a few nights, all the while making it on time to her two jobs.
In late December of 2018, Perry’s vehicle started to see some engine trouble, after which she was referred to the nonprofit organization Graceworks Ministries for assistance. Founded in 1995, Graceworks serves Williamson County residents in need through a variety of short and longterm services, including vehicle repairs. With Graceworks staff telling Perry that the repair could take up to a week, staff told her that they had arranged for her to stay at the Nashville Rescue Mission.
“It was terrible — I had never been more frightened in my entire life,” Perry said of her time at the Nashville Rescue Mission. “I did not sleep the whole time I was there. I’ve never been to prison, but to me it was like what you would do if you were going to some type of prison situation.”
First led into the facility through a metal detector, Perry was later taken to the sleeping quarters with about 30 other women. At around 2 a.m. during her first night, Perry said that she witnessed two women grab the ankle of another woman sleeping on the top bunk of a bunk bed and slam her down to the ground. Bleeding and crying Perry said, the woman would later be taken from the rescue mission via an ambulance.
Perry said she continued to witness behavior that frightened her during her time at the mission — from continued violence to mothers threatening their children.
“I’m just in tears,” Perry said. “I’m thinking, dear lord, why am I here? They would make us all go outside — there were hundreds of us — line up outside in the cold, and I felt like this is the Holocaust or something. I was so scared.”
After finally having her vehicle returned to her, Perry would go on to spend many months in this routine: working at CoolSprings Galleria, and later sleeping in her car parked at the Walmart. It wouldn’t be until 2019 that Perry discovered the WCHA, and began to stay at the shelter on the nights temperatures dropped below 32 degrees.
But what about those facing homelessness in Williamson County who are unable to access the WCHA shelter? One such person is the aforementioned 55-year-old Joe Wise of Fairview. Using a nearby truck stop as a safe haven to warm up, charge electronics and, if lucky, grab a bite to eat, Wise retires to a $20 tent in the woods most nights.
Much like Perry, Wise said that he used to live a mostly normal life: He had a home in Reno, Nev., owned multiple vehicles and had a steady income while working at the Grand Sierra Casino with his wife. Sometime in 2015, Wise said his wife had been diagnosed with cancer, ushering in a yearlong battle with their insurance providers in order to get the treatment she needed.
Wise said that he and his wife had been turned down for radiation treatments multiple times, and that they had even traveled to a cancer center in Chubbuck, Idaho, in the hopes of receiving treatment.
It would be in the summer of 2016 that that battle against their insurance providers would end.
“It was on June 3 that my wife passed away — she died in my arms at 11:05 p.m,” Wise said. “I didn't have anyone else around as far as family, so long story short, I tried to move down here, trying to make it myself. If you ain't got nobody to, it's all you can do.”
Wise said that the same day his wife passed away, he got a call from his insurance provider who told him they had been approved for radiation treatment. It was then, Wise said, that he spiraled out of control.
Enraged, Wise said that he went to his place of work and threatened management, only to be escorted out by police shortly thereafter. Using alcohol to numb his pain, Wise’s situation only worsened from there, having a stroke and a heart attack within months of his wife's passing. After months of battling depression, Wise decided to hitchhike out east, where he would eventually land in Fairview.
Despite his predicament, Wise said he is content with the life he’s living, and that he will likely hitchhike out further east after Christmas.
“I find [happiness] because I'm a loner,” Wise said. “Before when it was just me and my wife, we always stayed alone by ourselves anyway. I'm happier when I am out in the middle of nowhere. Every time I get stuff, somebody wants to take it, so I moved out in the woods so I could have just a little bit and have me a peace of mind.”
So what are the solutions to help Williamson County’s homeless population? Riggs said it’s about reaching functional zero: having a plan in place for those experiencing homelessness to get back on their feet. The first step of reaching functional zero, however, is having at least one permanent shelter to temporarily house those receiving assistance.
How you can help
The organization leading the charge to help Williamson County’s homeless so far has been the WCHA. As a newly formed nonprofit, donations are “greatly needed to make sure its doors stay open." Donations are tax deductible and can be made through the Franklin Community Development Foundation online by clicking here.
During nights when the shelter is open, the WCHA serves two meals a day, and so meals — especially hot meals — are highly desired. Those interested in providing meals are encouraged to contact Franklin Alderman and WCHA board member Brandy Blanton via email at [email protected].
The shelter is also in great need of new socks, underwear and hygiene products.
Lastly, the WCHA also encourages the community to participate in the shelter by serving a meal themselves.
Those looking to support the shelter further, or to see how to get involved are encouraged to contact Pastor Kevin Riggs at (615) 440-7553, or via email at [email protected].