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Downtown merchants call for unified homeless services contact

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Candy Carter of Last Call 4 Grace Ministries (right) welcomes people to the Downtown Dwellers forum Wednesday. Also pictured are Jason Bennett and Amber Hampton of Murfreesboro Cold Patrol. JASON M. REYNOLDS

Downtown merchants raised two key concerns about homeless services at a forum Wednesday: Give businesses one point of contact and ask for specific help.

Street ministry Last Call 4 Grace hosted the Downtown Dwellers forum at its West Main Street office.

The meeting was sparked by a merchant's Facebook post that went viral, said Murfreesboro Cold Patrol's Jason Bennett.

The post, which spoke about people who are homeless "hanging out" downtown and "the image...hurting our downtown," as well as skateboarding teens damaging property, generated a lot of feedback.

Bennett said a lot of talk was "yada yada," but there was good discussion too.

Attorney Michelle Blaylock-Howser made the post, which she said was "misconstrued."

Blaylock-Howser said she knows most of the "regular" downtown homeless people but met a new man that day who was staying in the shade to beat the heat. She gave him water but wondered what would happen to him later.

She called all the agencies at the forum "great organizations, but I didn't know about half of you," and invited them to call her personally when they need help.

"It bothers me we're getting a third aquatics park in the city but there's no one place for people to get out of the elements," she said.

Merchants need a central place to deal with, said Blaylock-Howser, suggesting it reflects badly on businesses, churches and individuals that they haven't demanded city leaders take action.

"I need someone to tell me what I'm watching," said Chris Gerbman, owner of The Country Gourmet, who compared the number of agencies to a circus. "All kinds of stuff is going on... We need one place."

Candy Carter of Last Call 4 Grace offered to serve as the central contact for merchants who need help connecting a person who is homeless with services they may need.

References were made to a recent presentation by Scott Foster of The Journey Home to the Murfreesboro City Council on building a central campus for homeless services. (Foster did not attend the forum).

The central campus will not happen unless nonprofits, businesses and United Way work together to tell city and county governments it should be a priority, said Michael Sherr, Middle Tennessee State University Social Work Department chair.

Much of the meeting was devoted to the agencies describing their services.

In addition to Last Call and Cold Patrol, forum participants represented were: Stepping Stones Safe Haven; The Guidance Center; Greenhouse Ministries; The Journey Home; and The Way of Hope. Sandy Bell, an advocate who volunteers with several homeless organizations, was a speaker.

Representatives of the Homeless Alliance of Rutherford County, an umbrella coalition of agencies, had several representatives present as well.

Members of other homeless service nonprofits attended as audience members.

Several representatives said they need more volunteers. Shelter space was another concern.

"Food is not the issue," said Cold Patrol's Amber Hampton. "The issue we're facing is shelter space."

The few shelters include Salvation Army, which is for people transitioning into work; it is not primarily an emergency shelter, she said. Stepping Stones Safe Haven houses a maximum of 12. Neither can take boys over age 12, which is a huge issue for homeless families.

Cold Patrol operates emergency overnight shelters when temperatures drop below freezing, Hampton said. Last winter they served 320 people.

"We know there are a lot of people who never access those shelters," she said.

Know someone who has a need? Hampton provided this list of local resources: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1k4iaHlI84n9V29YC2ciWugBGWskrlGGyulT1MdTwMyk/mobilebasic

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AMBER HAMPTON, CANDY CARTER, CHRIS GERBMAN, COLD PATROL, DOWNTOWN MURFREESBORO, GREENHOUSE MINISTRIES, JASON BENNETT, LAST CALL 4 GRACE, MICHEAL SHERR, MICHELLE BAYLOCK-HOWSER, MURFREESBORO, MURFREESBORO COLD PATROL, SANDY BELL, SCOTT FOSTER, STEPPING STONES SAFE HAVEN, THE GUIDANCE CENTER, THE JOURNEY HOME, THE WAY OF HOPE
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