Tent City: Updates and Reflections

Tent City, winterSince last summer, members of Amos House have come to know and love the colorful, endearing residents of Tent City, a local homeless encampment here in Nashville. When the city planned to close the camp on November 1st of last year, we organized a letter writing campaign and non-violent demonstration to pressure city officials and draw attention to the injustice of bull-dozing the makeshift homes of our brothers and sisters. With the combined efforts of college students, advocates, local church goers, and other concerned citizens, a public outcry was launched and to our surprise, Mayor Karl Dean was sympathetic to our concerns and granted the doomed camp a reprieve. He charged the Homelessness Commission with deciding what to do about the camp and, in turn, the Commission charged local outreach workers with the task of moving Tent City’s residents out of the camp and into housing. The lack of low-income housing in Nashville and the overwhelming barriers that people living on the streets face made this task challenging, to say the least.

Such barriers to housing include having a pet or pets, having a felony or other charges, substance abuse, the lack of documentation (social security card, ID, birth certificate, etc.), income, medication, transportation, technology, etc. Also, for chronically homeless individuals, the transition into housing and a structured environment can be ridden with anxiety and difficulty.

Over the last six months, however, we have walked with about a dozen of our brothers and sisters from Tent City into housing. We are hoping to help over a dozen more residents move into housing over the next couple of weeks. Here at Amos House, we believe that housing is a human right, because without housing, people are forced to live a subhuman existence.

City officials have set at least three different closing dates for Tent City that have been pushed back (late September, November 1st, and most recently, June 1st) but continue to insist that Tent City will have to close eventually because of its location. Never mind that the camp has existed in its current spot for over 20 years, never mind that the waiting list for Section 8 Housing in Nashville is currently between two and three years long, never mind that it offers a centralized location outside of the main downtown area for people to live and have consistent contact with outreach workers and other resources: the camp is in the projected path of the proposed riverfront redevelopment, half a mile from a burgeoning luxury condominium (Rolling Mill Hills), and sitting on state and private property.

So the Commission recommended that the camp be closed June 1st, but the week before, they rescinded, saying that they would work with outreach workers, service providers, and other advocates to come up with a feasible relocation plan for the remaining 40+ residents without housing prospects. They are hoping to move the residents out and close the camp in the next 2-3 months.

The “Tent City saga” has been extremely interesting to watch and participate in, and while it has been frustrating and unnerving, certain aspects of it have also been redeeming. We have seen the “powers that be” pressured and persuaded by a concerned, justice seeking community. We have seen the power of the media at its best and worst. We have seen our homeless friends discover the stability and dignity they had once lost. And we have seen that while our city is capable of compassion for its most vulnerable citizens, it often opts for the “out of sight, out of mind” approach. Our good friend Steve Samra said on his blog that this saga “should be an indictment of the housing situation here.” While we build luxury condos, gentrify downtown, and propose the building of a new convention center, our brothers and sisters die on our streets for want of shelter. Yes, this is an indictment to our city and also to us as professed followers of Christ. Let us all continue to work to be a people that embodies the justice, peace, mercy, and compassion of the Kingdom of God here on earth and a people that calls our society to do the same.

If you are interested in ways to get involved in the lives of the residents at Tent City and other individuals who live on our streets, please e-mail us.

To read about the history of the camp and receive news updates, visit the Tent City News Facebook page. To see last night’s News Channel 5 story on the camp, click here.



  1. I couldn’t agree more that “housing is a human right” and commend Amos House for its efforts! You are a wonderful example and challenge for me. May your prophetic voices continue to shine light into the abandoned places in the empire.

  2. David,

    I’ve been thinking about the idea of “human rights”… about what intrigues me in this particular phrase and what unsettles me. As we discussed earlier, I do believe that in a country such as America where so many live in opulence, everyone should be housed. We do have the resources and ability to house everyone… we just chose not to make it a priority. On the other hand, this language of “rights” is something that the theologian Stanley Hauerwas and others are particularly cautious of.

    I found this article tonight and have been reading it (“Civic Solidarity and Catholic Social Thought: A Critique of Hauerwas” by R. Chase Skorburg)… Here is an excerpt from it that I have been contemplating:

    “Hauerwas suggests Christians ought to avoid the ingrained ‘liberal language’ of justice and rights, believing that doing so will provide society with a witness to a truer, more fulfilling, and holier way of relating socially. According to Hauerwas, liberalism treats justice and rights as if they are free-standing moral conceptions. It acts as if they require no further clarification. Citizens of liberal democracies claim rights against each other insouciantly, citing them as things they are justly due. In doing so, however, they (and liberalism generally, Hauerwas believes) fail to acknowledge a fundamental question. If rights are just claims against another, and if justice is giving people their due, who or what determines what persons are due? Philosophic forms of liberalism attempt to answer this question in varying ways. Often these attempts suggest the existence of a theory of justice to which all rational individuals will naturally assent. Hauerwas, however, rejects this idea. “The problem with such reasoning,” he writes, “is the assumption that we share enough to even know what justice might mean.”[10] If citizens fail to share a tradition of values and virtues, there is no theory of justice or correlative list of rights upon which citizens as rational agents can contractually agree….Given Hauerwas’ view of the misplaced and misunderstood emphasis on rights and justice today, he believes Christians “will speak more truthfully to our society and be of greater service” by simply refusing to use this language. [11] He believes the only theologically warranted way of counteracting “the illusion that the larger social order knows what it is talking about when it calls for justice” is to refuse to take part in such talk and, instead, to bear witness as the church to a truer, more holy way of relating socially.[12]” (The quotes are taken from Hauerwas’ book “After Christendom?”)

    It seems that we may need to take into consideration what we as Christians imply if and when we do use the language of “human rights.” I will be thinking about this and would love to hear input from others on the matter.

    (The full article cited above can be found at http://www.grammaroffaith.com/Postings/Skorburg.html)

  3. I agree that the notion of human “rights” is problematic, especially because we seem to lack a basis for where such rights reside or where such rights are created. Do human rights need to be spelled out in a writing, such as in a legal document (e.g., a constitution) or a religious canon, that is acceptable in all cultures and at all times? I fear that our pluralistic world would be unable to point to such a unifying, common source that all would accept. Or are human rights limited to a specific culture at a specific time? This seems to be a philosophical and ethical question that is too big for me to tackle, but maybe there are others who have done or are able to do so. Until further enlightened, I will probably continue to assert that a global goal should be to ensure housing for all, whether it is a “right” or a necessity or whatever. Thanks for continuing to push me in a search for a workable rubric for human rights.

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