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September 23, 2008

Movin’ on up? Wayside’s proposal to move a homeless shelter to the Highlands has everyone in a tizzy

Most of the lights on East Market Street are out, not the result of the recent violence of a hurricane-associated windstorm, but because of the implied curfew that comes with a somewhat depressed but still managing to gentrify neighborhood like this. It is a weekend night, midnight, outside Wayside Christian Mission’s east downtown complex, a sprawling if ramshackle series of old buildings in various states of update. This campus has 106 beds for adult women and their children, and the families stay in the building on the corner. Sometimes more than a handful of them pack into the off-white, tiled-floor rooms on the second floor. Six transitional apartments are occupied. There is a patio area between two of the buildings, where a fence used to keep from the public’s view groups of women smoking cigarettes, reading, playing cards, having conversations, and generally being outside the confines of their rooms, which any American pulling a robust-enough paycheck would consider appallingly small and soulless. Single women occupy the other book-ending building, on the east side next to Flame Run Gallery and Studio. On an average night there are about 60 women here. 

The official curfews should be noted: No family can be outside after 9 p.m. and, depending on her program, a single woman must be in by either 9 or 11 p.m. Newbies and those not in a program check in between 5:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., and they may not leave after that. There are exactly zero single men here, and despite what you might believe about homeless shelters or government-subsidized living, in the three nights I am around this area when it is dark and nothing around is open and barely even a car drives past, I am not once accosted. That is not to claim science of this research. It is only to say that, anecdotally, my sole effort was to find random harassment, and there was none. 

This idea of harassment is one of several key points being raised now in quite a public fashion by the Original Highlands Neighborhood Association. The group recently voted unanimously to oppose a plan by Wayside to move this aforementioned shelter to the former site of Mercy Academy, up East Broadway near the Baxter corridor of bars, restaurants and general debauchery — which is, it turns out, a much likelier venue for harassment. According to figures obtained through open records requests to Metro Police, general smaller-scale crime — assault, drunk driving, public intoxication, property damage, petty theft — has happened nearly twice as often around the bar-goers as it did around the homeless since January 2007. In fact, instances of petty crime are about 10 times higher around Mercy’s old grounds as they are near Wayside’s current ones. 

There are mitigating circumstances here — for instance, there are way more people in the Original Highlands on a given night than East Market, so by simple critical mass, there would be more crap-stupid-people-do to deal with. As well, the fundamental difference between the areas is that one is residential and the other mostly commercial. So the crime stats aren’t a true read, though they are helpful. 

The two groups vying here are using them to say different things. The neighborhood association says there is already too much crime around them, and that Wayside, by its very nature, would bring more. Wayside, for its part, is saying that compared to what the neighborhood already deals with, its criminal accessory is light. 


In June, Gill and Augusta Holland — big investors in the burgeoning East Market arts district — bought these buildings, ostensibly so they wouldn’t be torn down. Since 2000, Wayside has planned to expand its women-and-children facilities, and that was about to begin with the demolition of two buildings that would most likely qualify for historic preservation, were it sought.*

Wayside announced it would use some $4 million it had raised for the original expansion as well as a reported sale price of $5 million for the East Market campus to expand its location on West Jefferson Street to include the women and children. That fell through; there are numerous issues countering expansion on that lot, some regulatory and others practical.

Nina Moseley, chief operating officer at Wayside, says the $2.7 million Mercy campus is ideal. The facility, set back from the street about 30 feet and shielded from view by a row of 5-foot-tall shrubs, was abandoned last summer when the school decided it had outgrown the 80,000-square-foot campus and moved to a new complex on Fegenbush Lane. Its former environs remain in decent shape, at least on the outside; there is a courtyard and substantial parking behind the building, as well as a broad entryway and 6-foot brick privacy wall. Across Broadway is a buffet of businesses set amid the row of residences. Among them is a law office, consulting engineers firm, psychological services center, a massage therapist and “Teen Challenge,” a recovery center for kids to kick drugs. 

Behind Mercy is a compact neighborhood of middle and upper-middle class houses, some with the exterior artistry that suggests a neighborhood already deeply gentrified. This was a blighted area as recently as the 1970s. And that, you may have supposed, is a big part of this whole deal. 

Chuck Burke, chair of a subcommittee set up by the neighborhood association to actively oppose Wayside’s proposal (launching www.highlandersforresponsiblegrowth.com, circulating petitions, conducting informal neighborhood research to assess the level of opposition and sending letters to this effect to Wayside’s board of directors, Mayor Abramson and local media outlets), says the group’s central complaint is scale — housing as many as 350 people is simply too big, and that if somebody proposed to put that many people into condos at the same spot, for instance, the association would bring similar opposition. 

“The issue becomes how many people can a neighborhood absorb and live with as a good neighbor versus at what time does the neighborhood simply have to say no and try to resist this,” Burke says. While there are various offices scattered throughout and, of course, the city’s most substantial nightlife district just up the street, the vast majority of the area is residential housing, and frankly, Burke and others say, changing the subject slightly, people are worried about home values. 

Jim Lynch owns the house directly north of Mercy. He lived there from 1990 until 2005, is now trying to sell it (an auctioneer, Lynch lives off Hurstbourne Lane and uses the house as his office), and says potential buyers have been scared off by rumors that Wayside might move in next door. “I just think it’d be just bad news for our neighborhood, with that many people coming and going, that many people there all the time,” he says.

A letter to Wayside from the association, sent Sept. 2, details further grievances: The neighborhood believes Wayside would instill fear and “disrupt, if not eliminate, the unique culture that has developed within our neighborhood over the past 30 years.” The group is referring to the Wayside facility as a “mega-shelter,” a term someone shouted at a neighborhood meeting, and regularly comparing it to Wal-Mart, a grandiose PR move Burke admits isn’t totally accurate but is nonetheless, he says, a powerful, worthwhile analogy. 


Wayside’s Moseley, of course, disagrees with all of this. 

Of the contention that the shelter would increase crime: “It tells me that there’s fear that we’re going to bring crime over there — regardless of how real it feels to them, it’s just not the case,” she says. “Our women and children are not ones to roam around.” 

Of worries about declining home values, she cites skyrocketing real estate values in the East Market area, now an arts district: “I understand that fear, too. These folks, many of them, have put their life savings into their houses and they think that investment is going away. Again, all I can do is point to our history on Market Street, and all that happened over there was explode.”

Of Burke’s suggestion they put 10 shelters of 30 people in scattered sites around the city, Moseley says the cost is far too high, that you must employ too many people, keep up too many facilities, distribute too much food, and so forth. Right now, Wayside spends about $5,500 per person, per year. 

Moseley says the perception that the whole neighborhood is against Wayside’s proposal is false; both she and Burke have met with the other’s board of directors, and everyone acknowledges there are mixed feelings. 

Moseley has offered concessions, including making Wayside-Mercy a closed campus, meaning newbies would register at the West Jefferson building and be bused to the rear entrance at East Broadway. The cafeteria would be for residents only. These changes, Moseley contends, would reduce foot traffic. 

This week, Wayside put up a website, www.mercyforthehomeless.com, essentially a counter to the neighborhood association’s online effort. Increasingly, the nuanced arguments about where to house the homeless are ceding to all-out flame wars — the harsh Wal-Mart comparisons and blunt accusations that homeless people mean crime, the feigned innocence and emotional appeals about helping those in need. 

Metro Councilman Tom Owen, D-8, who represents about 90 percent of the neighborhood, has written a letter to Wayside and Mayor Abramson declaring his opposition to the proposal. Councilman David Tandy, D-4, whose district includes the Mercy property, has come out to the same effect.

For the moment, this will all have to wait (or continue): Moseley says Wayside’s board has yet to discuss whether to continue pursuing this tack, given the neighborhood opposition. 


*Designating the area a historic preservation district would enhance requirements, and thus costs, for certain businesses, which is why the East Downtown Business Association has avoided it.