The Flooding of Tent City

by Andrew Krinks (Originally published in the June 2010 issue of The Contributor)

(Photos by Tasha French)

When Ronnie Smith lost two jobs and a house four years ago, he was left with only one option. Like so many others in similar circumstances, he headed to Nashville’s largest year-round shelter space, the Nashville Rescue Mission. But, having never been homeless before, Smith struggled to adjust. Finding it near impossible to stay sane in such a chaotic and crowded environment, he soon began looking for another option. So, when he was finally able to move into the peace and quiet of an abandoned house with a friend, he was relieved. But, despite his best efforts, that friendship finally fissured, and Smith found himself in search of what seemed to be his last option: a tent. Once he obtained his tent, Smith spent his evenings setting up camp anywhere he could manage only to find himself, again and again, threatened by strangers or told by police officers to “move along.”

Finally, bereft of any remaining options, Smith headed to the only place left on his list—the place he had hoped never to have to go: Nashville’s Tent City. Having heard nothing but bad stories of the city’s largest homeless encampment—from drugs to theft to violence—Smith carried his belongings toward the riverside encampment with trepidation.

But when Smith arrived at Tent City eight months ago, he was surprised to find little to confirm those rumors. On the contrary, what he discovered was something he hadn’t been able to claim in his years on the street: a community. “People were real helpful. They’d even watch out for your stuff when you were gone,” says Smith, one of approximately 140 residents of the camp who, up until the morning of May 2nd when floodwaters completely destroyed the camp leaving every last resident displaced, were grateful to be able to call Tent City home.

Tent City before the flood

The Tent City that Ronnie Smith encountered eight months ago was not the same Tent City that has existed on the banks of the Cumberland River for more than 20 years. Not only had its population grown in that time from a mere handful of residents to over 140, it had also changed from a well-kept secret to a widely-recognized fact of the city, appearing in local newspapers, countless television news stories, a few documentaries, and even The Wall Street Journal.

To understand what initially caused this wider exposure and overall shift at Tent City, we need to go back to 2006, when then-Mayor Bill Purcell announced, in a trend that mirrored a number of other American cities, that the city of Nashville would begin its official push toward raising the “quality of life” in its downtown area. In the eyes of the average beholder, this campaign appeared, rather innocently, to be concerned with strengthening the overall pleasantness of our city. For those on their way to work, for tourists, for weekend honky-tonkers and concert-goers, the idea was, seemingly, to make downtown Nashville a more desirable place to spend time.

Unfortunately, however, a direct result of this public policy has been the criminalization of homelessness in Nashville.

To illustrate, if a well-dressed woman on her way to work stops on a sidewalk to rest with her large rolling briefcase in tow, no one would think anything of it. However, try the same thing when you’re a resident of the Rescue Mission who has no choice but to carry your large pack containing all of your belongings back and forth across the city on a hot day. When you stop to rest on a sidewalk and relieve your back, you’d better not rest too long, unless you’re looking to land an “obstruction of the passageway” citation from a law enforcement officer.

The same goes for carrying an open alcohol container in public or cutting through a parking lot to save time: one who is not homeless will seldom receive any trouble for such actions. But the same is not true for those who are homeless, and the city’s court and arrest records prove it.

All things considered, the notion of “quality of life” as understood in Nashville translates into little more than “quality of life” for some of Nashville’s residents, but certainly not all of them. Furthermore, and perhaps more telling, it is all too clear that this notion of “quality of life” also translates into “quality” for some at the expense of others. So, in a city where it is a serious challenge to show your face as a homeless person on a public sidewalk in downtown Nashville without being questioned about what you’re up to, the obvious result is a city where homelessness disappears—which is precisely what every city dreams of.

But our city officials ought to know better. When you “get rid” of a problem, it’s a good idea to engage in a bit of reflection, to dig a little deeper. You may ask yourself: has the problem been made right, alleviated, redeemed? Or has it merely been made to disappear? The truth is, the “quality of life” campaign and other efforts to rid our city of the “problem” of homelessness can only result in the displacement of that problem, meaning, if we look hard enough, we’ll find that the problem hasn’t been alleviated, only relocated. And to find where we’ve sent so many of our beloved “problems” packing, one need look no further than the banks of the Cumberland River. Because when it is a crime to be homeless and to dwell as such among the other citizens of Nashville, and when the Rescue Mission, for various and legitimate reasons, is not an option, one is left, like Ronnie Smith and so many others, with only one remaining option: camping. And Tent City, located alongside Inner City Ministries on the banks of the Cumberland River was, until recently, one such place for 140 men and women to do just that.

But as Tent City grew, so did Metro government’s hyper-awareness of it. Before long, though it was by no means the first time in its more than 20-year history that it happened, police officers showed up at the camp in 2008 and posted notices that the camp would be shut down in a matter of weeks and would therefore need to be cleared of all belongings as soon as possible; anything left standing would be razed and anyone remaining would be arrested. And so, after being unable to stay too close to downtown without getting harassed, homeless individuals who retreated to Tent City for some semblance of privacy and freedom were once again told to “move along,” or else face arrest.

That is, until local churches, advocates, and outreach workers stepped in. Offering to clean up the premises, then actually paying for dumpsters, port-o-potties, showers, and bringing in volunteers to pick up trash—all while promising to stand face-to-face with any bulldozer that might tear down tents and well-designed wooden homes to the ground—Tent City’s closure was averted. After rallies and extensive volunteer efforts from ministers, students, and concerned citizens, the word from Mayor Dean at last came down that the camp would not be demolished.

Since then, despite occasional and somewhat subtle attempts by Metro’s police department to reverse Mayor Dean’s order, Tent City has gone from being a homeless encampment perpetually on the verge of destruction to the closest thing Nashville has to an officially-sanctioned “transitional housing” site, with law enforcement recently going so far as to destroy other camps and send their residents packing for Tent City. In the last year, with the help of its closest outreach workers and ever-present volunteers, a Tent City council, made up of Tent City residents, was formed to help keep order and rules intact. If that is not evidence enough of the fact that its residents deeply desire to get their lives back together, they have even initiated and held AA meetings on site, aware that alcohol abuse has often been the root of more than a few problems the camp has faced in its history.

While Tent City has been far from an ideal community, it has been a necessary a one. In a city that promised 2,000 units of low-income housing five years ago and yet has drastically failed to follow through on that promise, a place like Tent City remains inevitable. Not only that, but Nashville’s primary shelters are not legitimate options for individuals in committed relationships, for those who own pets, or for those who have a criminal record. Furthermore, the road from homeless to housed and reintegrated is a long and arduous one—one that is near impossible to manage without a system of support. It is for these reasons that “transitional housing” (what Tent City strives to be) is important. A step above temporary shelter and a step below permanent housing, transitional housing puts a floor beneath the difficult path of downward mobility, allowing homeless individuals to prepare for permanent housing and social reintegration with the guiding help of outreach workers and a community of other homeless men and women in the exact same boat.

But, despite the fact that it has existed on the banks of the Cumberland for over 20 years, and because it has grown so rapidly on land owned by the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT), city officials have had no choice but to put a timeline on relocating Tent City. To that end, in February of this year, the Metropolitan Homelessness Commission formed two subcommittees charged with locating an alternative site for the camp, as well as with researching models and structures from officially-sanctioned, transitional encampments like Dignity Village in Portland, OR that could work in Nashville. Progress has been made and more evolved rules and guidelines are in the process of being written with the help of Tent City residents.

While many things have improved at Tent City in the last year—things that have allowed many people to gain the necessary footing to step into housing and better work and a more humane existence—its days have long been numbered. But, to the shock of its residents, it would not, in the end, be the cold machinery of bulldozers that would level Tent City; it would be the unexpectedly volatile Cumberland River come rising over its banks, higher and higher until the top of every last tent and tarp-covered wooden home packed full with every last belonging stood fully submerged beneath its consuming waters.

The flooding of Tent City

When Ronnie Smith woke up Sunday morning, May 2nd, to a small but steady stream of water running in front of his tent (a large tarp fastened over a wooden frame), he wasn’t terribly surprised. “It wasn’t all that unusual,” he said. “So I went back to sleep.” When he woke up fifteen minutes later, however, with water halfway up his bed (a stack of two mattresses on top of two box springs), he began to worry. After a quick glance around his tent in which all of his belongings were floating like debris on the surface of the water, he grabbed the only dry items he had time to reach for: a t-shirt and a pair of shorts. When his feet hit the floor, the water was well above his waistline. Emerging from his tent, he started wading with other residents to higher ground.

One of those other residents was Ruth Simmons, a relative newcomer to Tent City the day the rains began to fall. Waiting to receive word on her disability appeal, and working as a vendor for The Contributor in the meantime, Ruth considered it a gift to be able to live where she did for those brief months. “I was very comfortable there. It was my home.” When she woke up Sunday morning, like any other rainy morning, she, along with Ronnie Smith and so many other Middle Tennesseans, had seemingly no reason to be concerned. Even as the water rose, Simmons says, it didn’t quite sink in what, exactly, was happening. “I was kinda in denial.” That is, until she stepped outside her tent into waist-high water.

An hour or so later, residents began to gather together on higher ground where they met Doug Sanders, outreach minister at Otter Creek Church, who had been given permission by Inner City Ministries to use their bus to transport residents to the Red Cross Shelter that had just been set up at Lipscomb University. Doug, one of the more familiar faces at Tent City in recent years, drove two busloads of residents, about 70 in all (plus more than a dozen pets), to Lipscomb where Tent City residents and approximately 130 non-Tent City residents stayed until Tuesday, May 18th. Another 30 of Tent City’s residents received temporary shelter at Woodbine Presbyterian Church and Green Street Church of Christ, as well. The remainder of the residents went either to a friend’s house or straggled on the edges of the flooded camp until they found someplace else to go.

Of course, it wasn’t just those living on the banks of the Cumberland that felt the force of the record-breaking rainfall. It has been nearly 100 years since Tennessee has seen anything close to the amount of rain that fell those first three days of May. As much as 18 inches of rain fell in some areas, leaving countless streams, rivers, and waterways well above their capacity. The images are unforgettable: the building floating past almost fully submerged tractor trailers on Interstate 24; the tops of stop signs barely visible above the water line; rescuers driving boats down the middle of roads that have never been flooded before; homes and businesses all but buried beneath standing water; people of all ages hanging onto trees and cars for dear life; brown water sneaking up to Second Avenue downtown; and the list goes on—more endless than any one person can know.

But more than the images on the news, every person in Middle Tennessee, whether personally affected or not, knows countless others—family, friends, neighbors—who were. So widespread is the devastation that every Middle Tennessean knows someone who lost every last thing: people whose houses were carried upstream; people whose cars were destroyed; people whose tokens of memory were lost; people who now own nothing but the clothes on their back.

But the storm’s devastating effects have had a rather fortunate result, as well. The true character of a people is given room to reveal itself in the worst of times, and Nashville has proven itself to be more generous than expected. Anyone who spent any time tearing out drywall or tile flooring in a flooded house knows well how many strangers spent days walking through the desolation (in Bellevue, Bordeaux, Franklin, and elsewhere) offering whatever help was needed. At last, the “Volunteer State” has been given the opportunity to prove its nickname unmistakably accurate.

Many have said that natural disasters such as the flooding that struck Middle Tennessee have the ability to act as a great equalizer. While it is true that all socio-economic classes were affected by the storm, its lasting effects will likely not prove equal. For some, losing “everything” means losing those things that can fit inside a two-person tent. When Ruth Simmons, holding back tears, says that she lost “everything”, she means her bed, a few bags of clothing, her personal identification, photos of her children and grandchildren, as well as her Contributor bag and newspapers. All of it now floats somewhere along the banks of the Cumberland River while she strains her mind to figure out some way to start again.

Tent City after the flood

There is no minimizing the degree of loss people all across Middle Tennessee will continue to suffer for a long time to come. But it would be a mistake to pretend that every victim will experience an equal degree of restoration. For those living in Tent City—and let us not forget the countless other riverside homeless encampments of our city—the future is especially uncertain. But just as the people, organizations, and businesses of Middle Tennessee have been given an opportunity to respond compassionately to victims of the flooding living in all areas, so the pre-flood posture of our city—government and public alike—toward our homeless neighbors now has an opportunity to be reexamined and reconsidered. After all, the recent displacement of Tent City due to flooding is not the first displacement its residents have experienced, and it almost certainly will not be the last.

As for what comes next for the displaced residents of Tent City, there is much still to be determined. Metro has officially condemned the land on which Tent City stood for so many years; saturated with raw sewage, upturned port-o-potties, diesel fuel, and other contaminants, it is no longer a place where humans can live in relative health and peace. But then, we might ask, when has living under a bridge or by a river ever been an acceptable form of human dwelling in a land of such plenty?

The immediate goal is to locate an alternate site for Tent City to be relocated. Calls for land in the downtown vicinity have been sent throughout the city, but those calls, as of the writing of this article, have yet to be answered satisfactorily. Donations of tents and sleeping bags have, however, been plentiful, and will certainly be used, but not until land is found.

The long-term goal is to move the camp to a permanent location before the end of the year. But both the temporary and permanent sites will continue to move away from the sort of camp where anyone can come and go and camp whenever they’d like, toward the sort of camp where people who are serious about making every effort to get back on their feet are given the means to do so. All in all, the goal will be to offer a dignified alternative to living on the streets or in shelters—streets and shelters that either do not welcome or cannot accommodate everyone.

The good news is that, in the wake of the flood, many Tent City residents have received aid from FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency). In addition, a number of Tent City residents have been approved for Section 8 housing vouchers. But even so, it may take months, if not longer, to secure actual housing locations for those residents. This may prove especially challenging in a city that is drastically under-resourced when it comes to low-income housing options. As for the rest of Tent City’s residents, some have received hotel vouchers that will last for a few weeks, while others will take refuge inside the walls of a handful of area churches that have been gracious enough to show hospitality to those left with no other place to go. But hotel rooms and emergency shelters are viable options for only so long, which is why the request for land in the downtown vicinity on which Tent City may be allowed to reestablish itself—as a well-organized transitional housing site—remains the most dire need at the present moment.

In the end, a city like Nashville—with all its churches, non-profits, and government institutions—certainly does not have to stand alongside the very poorest of its displaced flood victims. Indeed, there is no official law stating that a city must care for those whose lives have consisted of one disabling tragedy after another—those who, after the flooding of the Cumberland River, have found themselves displaced for what seems like the hundredth time. But there is no better moment than the present for the people of Nashville to reflect on what it means to be a city that cares for all of its citizens, no matter their socio-economic status. For if it is indeed true that “We Are Nashville” as the slogan says, then it is eminently important that none be excluded from that “We”—that none be left wanting after we’ve congratulated ourselves for being such a generous city. If “We Are Nashville”, then we will open our doors—and our land—to Ronnie, to Ruth, and to all the others left with no other place to go.

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