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A housing-first solution to chronic homelessness in Nashville

Michele Bratcher was a crack addict who spent a year in jail.  “I’m a convicted felon. Most places won’t even take you," she says.

Nashville’s chronically homeless have been getting off the streets at an unheard-of pace, largely thanks to landlords willing to take a risk. Since the start of June, nearly 200 people have been housed in apartments and duplexes.

Many of Nashville’s largest property managers and apartment complex owners agreed to deeply discount their rates. Tenants are charged a minimum of $50 a month and a maximum of 30 percent of their income, often Social Security payments.

But the holdup for many landlords isn’t the lower rental fees.

“You wonder, well are they going to behave in a way that’s going to alienate, or scare or hurt my other residents?” asks Kirby Davis of First Management Services, which has 2,500 units around Nashville. “You’ve just got to take the leap of faith on that.”

Davis sees it as a moral and religious duty to set aside space for the homeless. He helped convince other companies to do the same.

In this recent 100-day push -- similar to housing blitzes in other cities like Los Angeles -- most of the 189 recipients would not qualify under a typical lease, even if they had the money. They have no credit. Many have been to prison.

“I’m a convicted felon,” says Michele Bratcher, a recovering crack addict. “Most places won’t even take you. And I’m not trying to go back. Been doing better. Just trying to keep my head above water, and it’s working.”

After sleeping under bridges and behind bushes for the last year, Bratcher now has an apartment.

With the help of social workers, homeless advocates anticipate three-quarters of the new tenants will be able to keep a roof over their heads. Some won’t make it.

“A certain percentage will fall out of their housing,” says Will Connelly, director of the Metro Homelessness Commission in Nashville. “They’ll get evicted, probably. I think if we provide the right amount of support, a majority of folks can succeed.”

Homeless advocates around the country are watching to see if private landlords will put up with these tenants long-term. But they’re also monitoring the program because it’s a big test for an emerging recovery model called “housing first.”

The concept goes something like this: homeless people shouldn’t have to earn a place to stay by conquering an addiction or other underlying problem. Housing should be the first step to getting their lives stabilized.

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