‘Aging Matters: Unhoused’ explores homelessness in Nashville

Aging Matters Unhoused from NPT

Homelessness is on the rise in Nashville, Tenn. Between 2022 and 2023, there’s been an 11% increase among those experiencing homelessness. Many of these individuals are over the age of 50, and they are experiencing health conditions decades earlier than their housed neighbors. At the heart of the problem is a lack of affordable housing, and low-income people are paying the price.

Unhoused, the latest documentary in NPT’s Aging Matters series, explores some of the causes, effects, and solutions to issues around housing insecurity among older adults in Middle Tennessee. The documentary premieres on-air Tuesday, Jan. 9, at 8 p.m. Affordable Housing in Nashville, a companion program, premieres that evening at 8:30. These programs and a series of related short videos will also be available at www.pbs.org and on the PBS app.

NPT is partnering with two local organizations to offer free screenings of Unhoused. A preview screening takes place Monday, Jan. 8, at 11:30 a.m. at FiftyForward on Rains Avenue. A second screening event co-hosted by The Contributor street newspaper, one of the organizations featured in Unhoused, takes place Thursday, Feb. 1, at 5:30 p.m. in NPT’s Studio A. RSVP here for this free event.

“A lot of our vendors who have even worked their way into housing with us as they’ve gotten older, you’ll see that being homeless really took a toll on their health,” Cathy Jenkins, former executive director of The Contributor, says in Unhoused. She says 2023 was a rough year with the death of eight vendors.

But as Unhoused shows, there are also small victories and steps to getting people access to health care and housing. The program tells the stories of four people, including their paths to homelessness and their trajectory to temporary, transitional and, in at least one case, permanent housing.

In addition to providing its vendors with an income, The Contributor works to connect them to vital services and assistance such as food stamps and housing vouchers. Shawn Lesley is a prime example.

Lesley is a familiar presence at the end of Music Square East across from Owen Bradley Park and in view of Alan LeQuire’s Musica sculpture. He waves at drivers, often giving them his signature respectful greeting of queen or king, while selling copies of The Contributor. In Unhoused, Lesley’s enthusiasm for his job is evident, but he admits it’s not an easy gig for an older person.

“At 52, It’s, it’s hard. I mean, your body’s not the way it used to be,” he says. Experts and data agree with him.

“There is no medicine as powerful as housing. When people are homeless, everything else falls apart,” Dr. Margot Kushel says in the program. Physical and mental health issues become more pronounced. “Folks in their early 50s who were homeless really looked like people in their 70s and 80s in the general population,” Dr. Kushel continues. “We found an incredibly high mortality rate.”

If being relatively healthy and being homeless is difficult, imagine the challenges of being ill or trying to recover from illness while exposed to the elements and less than sanitary conditions. Those were the challenges faced by Cynthia Pritchard, who eventually found temporary housing at the Village at Glencliff.

Unhoused was produced by senior producer Shawn Anfinson, whose previous Aging Matters documentary, Exposing Cyber Threats, is in contention for a Midsouth Regional Emmy next month.

Major funding for Aging Matters is provided by the West End Home Foundation, The Jeanette Travis Foundation, and The HCA Healthcare Foundation, on behalf of Tristar Health. Additional funding provided by Jackson National Life Insurance Company and the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee.

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