"We're sorry. You have reached a number that has been disconnected or is no longer in service." That's the message people hear these days when they call the city's homeless help hotline.
As of August 1st, the Emergency Housing Partnership Homeless Hotline, which connected homeless or financially strapped Memphians with emergency shelter, food, clothing, and other basic needs, was shut off with no plans to relaunch until mid-September.
"If you were a family with children, they were obligated to take you in that night, either at a local service provider location, or, in some cases, put you up in a motel. And the next morning, you would go to MIFA's central intake to find out what services you qualify for," said Brad Watkins, executive director of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center, which works with the homeless through its Homeless Organizing for Power & Equality program.
The hotline is supposed to be relaunching on September 15th, but it will have a new phone number, and a new agency — MIFA — will be running it. It had previously been run by the Tennessee Community Services Agency (TNCSA), which manages homeless services and other programs for people in need throughout the state, since the hotline was launched in 2009.
Those seeking help in the interim are being asked to physically show up at MIFA's office at 910 Vance between 7:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. There has been no word on how after-hours needs are being met.
On July 21st, the TNCSA received a phone call from Kimberly Mitchell, administrator of the city's homeless and special needs department in the Division of Housing and Community Development, alerting the public agency that its contract to run the hotline for the city was ending on July 31st.
TNCSA's contract with the city provided only enough funding to staff the phone line during the day, and the calls were routed to volunteers at night. But before being notified that their contract was being pulled, TNCSA had negotiated a new contract that would staff the lines 24 hours a day with employees of TNCSA. TNCSA Executive Director Tom McWherter said he'd signed the contract and was waiting on the city to sign when he got the call in late July.
"I was told the reason my contract was being pulled was there had been some complaints during the night-time hours. The phones weren't being answered [by volunteers], or calls weren't being returned. It didn't involve my staff," McWherter said. "We all knew about that issue and had discussed it many times. It was an issue we had worked on solving with this new contract."
Mitchell did not return multiple requests for comment. And Chere Bradshaw, the executive director of the Community Alliance for the Homeless (CAFTH), which provided some gap funding for the hotline, would not comment on what happened with TNCSA's contract.
"I think our performance in doing the hotline in all the years we've done it has been outstanding, and there is some motivation for [the contract] being ended, something other than performance," McWherter said. "But I don't know what that is."
McWherter said the TNCSA offered to give the city the hotline's number — 260-HOME — so they could relaunch the hotline sooner. But he says no one from the city or MIFA has followed up. Bradshaw said MIFA will be using a new number.
"There will be a new number, and it will be operated 24 hours. It was going to take too long to get the old number," Bradshaw said.
Although a new number will be launching soon, Watkins said the lack of communication from the city and CAFTH about the change presented a problem for local homeless service providers, many of whom he says didn't learn the hotline was down for a week and a half.
He says it also causes problems for homeless people who need services right away and cannot get to MIFA between 7:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.
"We're talking about human beings, some of them families with children, who need help," Watkins said. "They can't get it from a hotline that doesn't exist."