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Nashville mayoral candidates are homeless for one night

One homeless man tried in vain to sleep on a park bench. Two others swallowed their pride as they went into restaurants, broke but hungry.

All four men agreed to be homeless for a night before returning Wednesday to their real lives - as candidates for Nashville mayor.

The candidates promised advocates for the homeless that they would spend one night on the streets before the Aug. 2 election. The Nashville Homeless Power Project hopes the experience makes them more sensitive to the hundreds of people in the city with no place to live.

"I was struck by the number of people I saw sleeping in downtown Nashville," said candidate Karl Dean, the city's former law director. "There's no simple answer, but we've got to do something."

The National Coalition for the Homeless has been organizing similar experiences for college students and others for the past 25 years. But the group's executive director, Michael Stoops, said it was the first time political candidates agreed to take part.

"I think all people who run for office should be in touch with people living in poverty," Stoops said. "I think it should be a requirement."

The participants, chaperoned by current and former homeless people, were supposed to find a legal place to stay the night, spend at least 20 minutes sleeping on a park bench and ask strangers for spare change.

Much of that was more than the candidates could handle. Dean and David Briley, a city council member, did not panhandle, and all four men wandered the streets until Wednesday morning rather than attempt to find a shelter.

"I never really got a chance to rest," said Buck Dozier, another council member. He tried sleeping on a slab of concrete.

Homeless people got a chance to ask the candidates questions about the experience Wednesday. The first question caught them a bit off guard: Where did you use the bathroom?

Briley said he never got the urge. Dean and Dozier said they used the same restaurants where they asked for water and food. Howard Gentry, the city's vice mayor, had a more typical experience: "I went one time in the grass and one time in the woods."

More than 1,500 homeless people stay in the Nashville area on an average night, according to recent data from the National Coalition for the Homeless. Nationally that number is 744,313, the coalition says.

Other politicians around the country have done similar experiments to better understand issues surrounding poor and homeless people.

Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski and his wife recently took part in the "food stamp challenge" - spending just $3 (2 EUR) a day each on their meals to match the amount spent by the average food stamp recipient in Oregon. A state senator from Connecticut also spent three weeks living on food stamp funds.

Former Nashville Mayor Bill Boner went undercover as a homeless person while he was a Democratic congressman in 1986, one year before he became mayor. He said the experience opened his eyes.

"The true value of a city is how we treat the homeless, those who aren't as well off," said Boner, who now teaches a high-school government class.

Two other Nashville mayoral candidates - former U.S. Congressman Bob Clement and businessman Kenneth Eaton - have agreed to spend a night homeless at a later date. A seventh candidate, Cheryl Lynn Tisdale, did not make the promise.

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