A Real Church Home
City Road Chapel provides housing to some of Madison’s homeless
By Leslie LaChance
When Jay Voorhees signed on as pastor of City Road Chapel United Methodist Church in Madison nearly eight years ago, it was clear that his congregation and campus were at ground-zero for the homeless community in Madison. The church’s location on the corner of Neely’s Bend Road and Gallatin Pike is near the two busiest bus stops in Metro Nashville — the Madison branch of the Nashville Public Library and Walgreens’ Madison location. Many homeless Madisonians use these bus lines to get to downtown missions and food distribution points.
“People would come in all the time asking us for help,” Voorhees says. “And there came a point where we thought, ‘Why are people driving downtown to help the homeless while we have homeless folk right here?’”
The mission to serve the needs of unhoused people right here in the neighborhood has led the congregation to partner with various homeless ministries over the years — like Room in the Inn, Community Care Fellowship, Open Table, and Layman Lessons. It’s a path that has led the church to host its full-time transitional shelter on the City Road Chapel campus. Through a partnership with the Metro Nashville Homeless Impact Division and the Community Care Fellowship, City Road will open a pilot Mobile Housing Navigation Center on its campus in January. Another opened on the west side of town at Bellevue United Methodist church late last year, and the city has plans to open a third center at McKendree United Methodist Church downtown in the coming year.
“We’ll serve primarily the Madison-East Nashville corridor, and we’ll be able to house up to 15 people,” Voorhees says. “We’ll have two dedicated full-time social workers on staff to identify what folks’ needs are and to help them complete applications to obtain further assistance and housing — like maybe to get a Section 8 voucher or whatever they need. The goal is to provide stable housing for 30-90 days, with the hope of helping people find more long-term, permanent housing.”
The shelter will be open to men and women; each guest will have a private cubicle and footlocker. In some cases, couples can be housed together. “We really had a heart for doing that because very few shelters will,” Voorhees says. “One of the people in the homeless community who died in Madison a while back was a woman who froze to death staying with her partner in a car because they didn’t want to be separated. We’ve been really of the mindset that if there is a way to keep couples together, we’re going to try to do that at the church.”
In addition to attachments to loved ones, unhoused people have attachments to places. “The homeless community in Madison, or the homeless community in southeast Nashville, or the homeless community in other parts of town, like Brookmeade Park, the people there don’t have houses, but they actually have a home, and it’s that community,” Voorhees says. “They don’t want to go somewhere else to receive services. Transportation is a huge issue, and what if they get there and a place is closed, or they can’t find transportation back to their community? Logistically it’s really hard to get services.”
Shelter guests at City Road Chapel will apply for housing through the Continuum of Care Homeless Planning Council, part of the Homeless Impact Division. The program is supported by federal funding administered through the Nashville Metro government for local impact.
Voorhees expects a fair number of guests from Madison encampments, where he estimates up to 100 people are living. “I think most of the folks we’ll see will be chronically homeless,” he says.
“If you think of it as a recovery model, I think of the Mobile Housing Navigation Center as the detox center,” Voorhees explains. “It’s the place you go to sort of get used to not being on the streets, as a transitional living space to help you get back to a bit of normality and to identify the things you need to do next or want to work on. From there, they may move to their own place or may go into a longer-term transitional community. And there really are people who just need permanent supportive housing, which is almost impossible to find. That’s what we’re trying to identify. Hosting them at our facility is the first step.”
The Mobile Housing Navigation Center is part of a more significant shift at City Road Chapel. Although it’s been in existence for over 170 years, demographic and societal changes have resulted in an aging congregation and declining attendance. “The high point was in the 1990s, and they were worshipping about 500 on Sunday morning,” Voorhees says. “Before COVID, we were worshipping about 150, after COVID, about 50 on average, which is true for all churches. Most protestant churches are running about 50% of what they were before COVID.”
The decline in church membership — yes, even in churchy Nashville — reflects a national trend represented in data collected by pollsters like Gallup. Despite the rise of the megachurch, overall, fewer people are connected to specific churches or faith practices. The trend manifests locally in the number of empty church properties being razed or converted to other uses, like offices or boutique hotels.
City Road Chapel has chosen another path, making itself a hub for homeless outreach groups in recent years by leasing space in its unused education buildings to organizations that share the church’s mission. Before signing on to host the Mobile Housing Navigation Center, the church had already made room on its campus for the offices of the Metro Nashville Homeless Impact Division and Open Table, which provides meals to homeless people. No Exceptions, a prison reform organization, also operates out of the City Road facility. Two days a week, another organization, Layman Lessons, offers Showers of Blessing, a free shower and laundry service to homeless folks serving about 80 people a week.
The church also buys and distributes 100-200 bus passes to those in need and holds a free community meal each month. And the hope is that with renovation in another section of an education building, the Community Care Fellowship, which has a facility on 8th Street, will open another resource center on the City Road Chapel campus to provide additional services to the Madison homeless community.
“My folks are all in,” Voorhees says. “They realized we’ve got this huge facility that we don’t use all of and that we’ll probably never use again at the level that we used to. It’s a great gift, so how can we use it for good? [Low-cost leasing to organizations sharing the mission of caring for the homeless] allows us to be good stewards of the facility we have and to help people. That’s exactly what we want to do.”
The pastor acknowledges that homelessness can seem an intractable problem, especially in Metro’s current housing market. He believes it comes down to city leadership dedicating significant time and resources to housing efforts.
“We still don’t have the political will in this town to address the issue in the way it needs to be addressed,” Voorhees says. “Homelessness is a problem that most politicians just want to go away. It’s going to take a comprehensive plan and significant resources to address it. And the city leaders at every level are going to have to be on board.”
He points to what many see as the ineffective and inhospitable way city government has dealt with homeless encampments over the years, clearing and shutting them down here and there only to see them re-emerge in another spot nearby. It’s a failure that many homeless advocates have fought to address. Still, without a comprehensive city-wide government effort to take on the more significant issues affecting housing, it falls to a patchwork of faith-based organizations and other non-profits to do what they can.
The reality is that Nashville doesn’t have affordable housing stock. “We don’t even have a good definition of affordable,” Voorhees says. “And we don’t have enough places that will take Section 8 vouchers [which provide a rent subsidy through the federal funding]. It’s true that a lot of the folks who are on the streets get government checks. Yeah, they get disability, $700 a month. You can’t get an apartment for that.”
Disability and mental illness are also significant factors in homelessness. “It’s almost impossible to get somebody who is homeless with a mental health issue the kind of assistance they really need,” Voorhees says.
In the face of these challenges, the congregation at City Road Chapel United Methodist Church will keep doing what they can to help those in need nearby. As Voorhees says, “We can’t fix everything, but we can do something. We have to be faithful to what we hear God calling us to do right now. We take seriously that call to love your neighbor, and homeless people are our neighbors.”