Kevin Riggs is keeping his eyes open and his ears tuned in.
Fresh off a meeting on Feb. 25 that saw a packed crowd at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church enthusiastically embrace his plan for a permanent homeless shelter in Williamson County, the pastor of Franklin Community Church is eager to move on to the next step of making the idea a reality.
He’s already combing the city to find a building or a piece of property that would be suitable.
“I have been looking at buildings, and if I found what I thought might be a location I would try to do what I could to option it and do a contract,” Riggs said the day after the community meeting. “But that would be a step of faith. I think if the right place presented itself, because of the momentum right now, it would be wise to try to do everything we could to get that piece of property under option.”
Riggs, who led his church in the operation of an emergency shelter for homeless people for a number of years and is a leading advocate on the issue of homelessness in Franklin and Williamson County, is part of a coalition of citizens who have come together to take the idea of providing quality shelter for homeless people from a vague notion to something more tangible. Others in the group are Williamson Inc. President and CEO Matt Largen, Franklin Alderman-at-Large Brandy Blanton; Gregg Elliott, lifelong Franklin resident who was construction director for Habitat for Humanity; and John Besser, who founded the local Habitat for Humanity affiliate with his wife in 1992.
The group envisions a newer-model shelter of 8,000-10,000 square feet that would bring a holistic approach to the problem of homelessness. The facility would provide help in a variety of ways — whether it’s for an addiction, for someone trying to get their GED, or someone needing help filling out paperwork to get aid for a disability. There would be counselors on hand, opportunities for job training and job placement, and a spiritual component with churches providing mentoring.
Riggs said that based on numbers from various nonprofits and the two school districts in the county — the Williamson County Schools system shows 133 students as homeless while Franklin Special School District lists 109 — there are between 750-1,000 homeless people in Williamson County.
All four from the alliance agreed that for the project to be successful, it will need the support of nonprofits, the business community and the local government.
Solid support from nonprofits, businesses
During discussion at Monday’s meeting, there were plenty of huzzahs coming from leaders or representatives of a variety of area nonprofits that provide some support toward the fight against homelessness, including GraceWorks Ministries, Room in the Inn, the Salvation Army, United Way and Bridges Domestic Violence Center, among others.
From a business standpoint, Largen had sent a letter to members of the Williamson County Chamber of Commerce to let them know about Monday’s meeting, and he said he was pleased with the turnout of business owners and leaders.
“What I’ve learned over time in interacting with our members specifically is, they have a big heart,” Largen said. “They care about this community, they care about helping people in need and they want to use their talents to help our community and especially those who need help the most. So I was thrilled to see such a great turnout from our business community.”
Regarding the third leg of the stool, a few in the audience did question why there weren’t more from the city of Franklin at the meeting. Blanton and fellow Alderman-at-Large Pearl Bransford were seemingly the only two government representatives who attended.
“I’d like for the government to support what we’re doing and then help us when it comes to regulations and zoning,” Riggs said. “We’re not asking for shortcuts, but to show support for it, to help steer us in the right direction when it comes to zoning and what can be done and what can’t be done. We’d like them to partner with us instead of standing in opposition to it.”
City of Franklin’s role
Franklin City Administrator Eric Stuckey said the city is ready to play its role when the process reaches that point, when the group is ready with a plan to build or renovate a facility.
“Franklin is a very generous and caring community,” Stuckey said. “It’s not surprising that this is something that folks are thinking about.
“Right now it’s kind of in a conceptual stage, and I think it sounds like it might be more of a nonprofit element or effort that’s generally driven. Certainly, if there is interest in engaging the city as a partner, we would have those discussions. If you’re building anything, we’re involved anyway. If you look at it from a development standpoint, then we’ve got responsibilities from an oversight or a regulatory function just like anybody who builds or develops a facility or service in town. They may be working with us in that regard.
“There’s always a process, a transparency that we try to have with anything that comes through for what’s proposed and how that process would work. There would be some form of development plan review. We always have an open process, and impacted residents and neighbors are always informed and engaged whatever the process is. There is discussion and we try to make sure there is communication about what is proposed in an area, and I would not think this would be any different.”
Largen acknowledged during the meeting that the red tape portion of the process will come soon enough, and the work should be on getting this project off the ground pronto.
“What does a partnership look like, and how do different parts of the community come together to really address this issue? We talked a lot about the first step being the necessary step,” he said. “We don’t want to overwhelm this or overload this with bureaucracy, and to make sure we hit that immediate need now.”
The group is currently putting together an advisory committee, and will be meeting again within the next couple of weeks to consider the next steps. The plan is to create a nonprofit solely focused on the homeless shelter project, and to review feedback given by several audience members with suggestions or ways they could help.
In the days after the meeting, Riggs has been fueled by the turnout and enthusiasm.
“It was really overwhelming to see that much support, and everybody who spoke seemed to be in favor of it,” he said. … To have a positive discussion [Monday] night was encouraging.”