Wilson County hosted Middle Tennessee's biggest effort yet to combat homelessness amid infrastructural deficits for sheltering and rehabilitating, though much remains to be done.

Organized at The Mill in Lebanon by the Mid-Cumberland Community Action Agency, the Bridges to Tomorrow, Hope for Today Conference held recently in Lebanon brought together myriad experts on dealing with the local epidemic of homelessness. The two-day conference began with keynote speaker Joe Savage Jr. of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.

The conference also brought out Lebanon Mayor Bernie Ash, Trousdale County Mayor Stephen Chambers and Wilson County Mayor Randall Hutto. The latter established a countywide homelessness coalition back in 2017, now composed of some 50 organizations that provide services to homeless citizens.

The conference included a poverty simulation run by Shelly Barnes with the University of Tennessee extension office in Wilson County. As MCCAA community liaison Ronda Martin described it, "You came in, you chose your fate, you got a name badge, and then you went through this exercise, and it's designed to show you what people in extreme poverty had to go through just to get help."

One of the participants on a discussion panel broke into tears because she had been through the experience personally. She said everyone should experience it to know what it's like to be homeless and even more so how overwhelmingly difficult the challenge of rehabilitating one's own life is with so little help from the state.

The conference is viewed by attendants and MCCAA staff as having been a major success. It was organized to facilitate a turnout of about 100 people yet doubled its expectations as news of the apparent rise of homelessness continues to spread.

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The success is largely attributed to Martin, who has come to be viewed by many as the resident expert on homelessness in Middle Tennessee. She organized the conference to educate the public on the nuances of homelessness and how best to deal with the broad spectrum of challenges commonly encountered when helping homeless citizens in a variety of circumstances.

The MCCAA relied on a grant from the Department of Human Services to plan and organize the conference.

"We applied for (the DHS grant) with the specific intent of developing homeless coalitions in each county that we serve or to help support and promote existing efforts to aid the homeless," Martin told the Democrat.

The problem that remains, however, is that Middle Tennessee is still lacking in the capability to shelter, feed and track homeless people, let alone equip them for employment and housing themselves. She knows of only one year-round homeless shelter in the entirety of Middle Tennessee, which was just launched earlier this year by Franklin Community Church. That church's pastor, Kevin Riggs, ran a workshop on the core beliefs about poverty and the homeless at the conference.

Shelters are few and far between, and most of them are seasonal or situational in the services they provide. Many organizations that deal with the homeless provide food, not shelter. The whole purpose of Hutto's coalition is to find innovative ways to consolidate the resources of organizations spread out throughout Wilson County by networking them together so that homeless people can be processed through one cohesive system.

Due to reported budget tightening, the MCCAA is decreasingly likely to facilitate this or any similar conference in the future without successfully reapplying for the same DHS grant. The agency informed the Tennessee Department of Labor early this month that it was cutting 178 jobs by Oct. 31 according to Daily News Journal.

The conference is unlikely to continue next year, though it should according to Martin.

"My personal belief is that (the conference) does need to continue," she said, "but somebody's got to decide to continue it."

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