As we sat in our friends’ tent lit by warm glowing lamps, we could barely hear the hum of the generator as a powerful morning storm raged outside. Moments earlier, the sky had turned black and the trees at Tent City began to whirl and bend, shaking furiously their leafy heads as lightning scored the sky. We had power when many in nearby luxury condos had none. Some would describe the storm as violent, but I thought it was beautiful, and as the rain washed the land my mind returned again to thoughts of another kind of violence: violence without a beautiful side, violence hidden in such a way that it masquerades as “social services,” or “development,” or “community standards.”
You see, the violence that frightens me at Tent City isn’t the violence of unpredictable middle Tennessee weather, or even the violence of the occasional drunken brawl, but rather, the violence of the unseen clock always ticking down to yet another deadline. Like the third stay of execution for the condemned at the eleventh hour, Tent City (a shanty town on the banks of the Cumberland River, existing in the shadow of the now abandoned empty luxury condominium development of Rolling Mill Hills) has received its third stay of destruction. My friends in their wooden shanties and tarp-covered tents breathe a sigh of relief, yet the breath catches at the last moment because the unforgivable “unavoidable” destruction of their community has merely been rescheduled for September.
Hiding behind seemingly progressive, affluent-sounding, community-enrichment-sounding words and promises of jobs and riverfront development and greenways, stands the stark naked ugly pestilent truth that such promises are only used as the justification for destroying a community, destroying the dirt-floor-homes of the poorest of the poor without a guarantee of replacement housing prior to destruction. During the years of apartheid, we heard of such stories from South Africa and were horrified and shocked by such villainy, but when such atrocities occur in our own town today we look away or lie to ourselves by resting assured that surely some do-gooder will help find those people housing. “But wait,” you say, “hasn’t some progress occurred at Tent City? Didn’t we hear a Channel 5 news story about how everyone will be housed?” Yes, some progress has been made. Ten people have been housed since December and 16 more have been approved for housing. 14 of those now wait patiently for their new homes provided by Urban Housing Solutions, and the other two wait for the promised motor home on a trailer park lot where they and their pets can live in peace.
Despite the progress, however, 50 or so people still call Tent City home, and for these people the clock still ticks. Outreach workers have worked every week for nine months just to house 26 Tent City residents and there is no doubt that dozens of Nashville citizens will still be living at Tent City when the bulldozers and barbed wire fencing make their promised appearance in September.
Over the last couple of months, I had begun to feel hopeful as I attended one Tent City progress meeting after another. I had come to hope against all hopes that our city planners and commissioners and council members had come around to the advocates’ point of view that it is simply wrong to destroy the homes of desperately poor, socially powerless, disabled persons and to turn such people out into the streets with no shelter after having destroyed all of their worldly possessions, including their pets. I think that a Kantian-strength moral compass is hardly necessary to understand that such actions are morally indefensible and directly contrary to any and all notions of love, compassion and brotherhood. One may then understand my shock and disgust when at a recent commission meeting, homeless advocates were assured in no uncertain terms that the only reason Tent City is still standing is because of the media’s involvement. So this is what it comes to after nine months of fighting, begging, writing, advocating, and working tirelessly in the defense of human lives—that the only thing that made a difference was the fear of bad press. There was no moral epiphany, no sense of loving one’s neighbor, no sense of responsibility toward the socially marginalized; there was just fear. It is fear that has stayed the hand of violence, the hand of destruction—not love, not compassion, and damn sure not a sense of responsibility for the least among us. What does it take to build a community on love, compassion, and a commitment to the common good of all citizens? If we don’t strive to develop a sense of responsibility toward each other, if we don’t strive to commit ourselves to compassion and the common good over appearance and profit, then any one of us stands to have our life destroyed if and when it becomes profitable to do so, just so long as the eyes of the media are trained elsewhere.
From thoughts of Tent City and violence delayed, my mind turns to yet another example of violence embedded in the system; my mind turns to “Ben.” The police contacted me about Ben on a Thursday morning and asked me if I would go out to the Rescue Mission to meet with a guy who had been bused in from out of town by the Cincinnati police. The Mission had contacted Metro PD because Ben, although 54 years old, had the approximate mentality of an eight year-old and they were worried about him staying at the Mission, but it was also clear that he would be in serious danger on the street. When I arrived at the Mission I introduced myself to one of the chaplains who looked exhausted and was clearly happy to see me. He said that in his five years of working at the Mission that Ben was the most difficult person he had ever dealt with and that for Ben’s own good he couldn’t stay at the Mission because he would just be “hamburger meat” to the guys living there.
Not knowing what to expect, I walked into an office and found sleeping in a chair a short rotund gnome-looking man wearing pants, a stained button up shirt, long gold chains and a jacket. His wiry gray and white beard stuck out in every direction and he snored deeply. I called Ben’s name softly and lightly touched his shoulder. Terrified, he immediately jumped up and backed into a corner. I quickly but calmly assured him that I was there to help him and in a short time we were sitting together in the office discussing his journey from Cincinnati. It quickly became apparent to me that the assessment of Ben having the mentality of an eight year-old was spot on; my new friend was clearly bright and resourceful, but also clearly mentally retarded and extremely paranoid.
By grace alone I gained Ben’s trust quickly and in no time he was clutching my hand as any reasonable eight year-old would in a strange and threatening environment. I learned that Ben had met with a psychiatrist at the Mission who had signed involuntary commitment forms so that Ben could be transported to a local mental health institution where he would be safe (at least far safer than he would be on the streets) and could be further evaluated and treated for multiple physical and mental illnesses, and hopefully ultimately housed through adult protective services. Ben stayed glued to me and when I learned that he would be transported to the mental institution via the Metro police I intervened and offered to transport him myself because from experience, I knew that the police would only further exacerbate a frightening situation for him. As we were leaving we received a call from the institution insisting that Ben first be checked out by Metro General Hospital to ensure that he was not detoxing. The receiving doctor at the institution was assured by the psychiatrist who had performed the initial assessment of Ben that he was not detoxing, and was definitely not on anything stronger than Pepsi. But such assurance and assessment by a licensed, well-respected psychiatrist made no difference to the intake physician who remained deaf to reason and insisted that Ben first go to Metro General.
The psychiatrist and I were both utterly perplexed. I have transported directly, or followed the police while they transported, several persons to the mental health institution who were extremely inebriated or high and the institution never even thought of sending them to Metro General first. Feeling uneasy, I took my new friend to Metro General, which further confused him. He thought he had agreed to go and talk to the doctor at the mental health institution and was very confused as to why we had to go to Metro General first. Ben had been committed involuntarily a number of times, and although he could not read he knew what the code for involuntary commitment was when he heard it—and he heard it from a nurse at Metro General. He then asked me continuously “am I on hold? Am I on hold? I’m not on hold am I? I volunteer, I be good.” I assured him that he would not have to stay at Metro General and that we were going to talk to the doctor at the mental health institution.
I remained by his side and he held my hand throughout the evening. He constantly sought hugs of reassurance from me, the security guards and the nurses. Aside from vitals and a urinalysis, the receiving institution required that a number of blood tests be performed to further screen for substances. When the nurse came in to draw blood, Ben freaked. Apparently, prior to being shipped from Cincinnati to Nashville, he was hospitalized in Cincinnati and his arms were covered in bruises from where countless attempts had been made to draw blood or to hook him up to an IV. Ben had rolling or collapsing veins and there was no way he was going through that hell again. When Ben refused to have his blood drawn we were at a standstill. The mental institution refused to take him and Metro security wouldn’t let him sign himself out or let me take him to any other facility because of the commitment papers. Metro Hospital had no place for Ben, and Mobile Crisis (although sympathetic and well aware of the situation) could not remove Ben from the hospital either.
Furious with the sheer insanity of the situation and feeling utterly helpless, I stood next to him, holding his hand as Ben sat for seven hours on a plastic chair in the middle of the crazy-as-hell Thursday night Metro General ER. As the night wore on Ben became increasingly frightened and agitated, and at one point he shut us both in the ER X-Ray room and stood in the corner, fists balled up pressed against his eyes sobbing uncontrollably, saying “I’m scared, I’m scared, please take me home with you.” As the night wore slowly on we talked and I learned that Ben lived his life by “moving on” from city to city, catching rides at TA truck stops. Ben reported that he could never stay in one town for very long because inevitably someone in the system would come across him and determine that he was too vulnerable for the streets, and having no better option, would commit him to a state mental hospital for a short time before he was allowed to “move on” again. He said that someone always decided that he didn’t “fit criteria” and so they would discharge him, give him $20 and he would simply head for a truck stop. I told Ben “of course you fit criteria, whatever that means. You are clearly vulnerable and very sick and so we’ll be able to get you the help you need. I promise.” He smiled at me and said “I’m not stupid, you’ll see, I don’t fit criteria.” He then gave me the most heartbreaking compliment that I’ve ever received when he looked me square in the eyes and, through tears, said, “I wish you was my mom.”
He was finally transported to the mental institution around midnight. I left the hospital exhausted and shattered. I cried the whole way home. Around 7:30 a.m. the next morning I received a call from a social worker at the mental institution where Ben had been transported the night before. She informed me that Ben had been sent back to the Nashville Rescue Mission a few hours earlier at 3:00 a.m. As it turns out, upon Ben’s arrival, the admitting physician at the mental institution asked Ben if he wanted to kill himself or anyone else. Ben answered truthfully that he didn’t want to kill himself or anyone else, and so the good doctor pronounced him fit and in no danger and promptly sent him back to the Mission. Everything went south from that point.
For the next week, Ben was my constant companion from early morning to late afternoon. Five well-educated, skilled, experienced individuals worked to find housing and help for Ben. Over and over again we were told that the Ben just didn’t “fit criteria” and that no help was available. So night after night we moved him to a different shelter, or to a hotel, until we could start the process over again the next day. Adult protective services refused to help Ben because he was “not a threat to himself or others,” never mind the fact that Ben had been beaten, raped, and totally victimized countless times before due to his vulnerability. Adult mental retardation services refused to intervene on Ben’s behalf because he lacked official documentation that he had been diagnosed as mentally retarded prior to the age of 18. Never mind that Ben had been homeless off and on for 30 years and could not give us the names of institutions or hospitals where such records might exist. At the end of the day we understood a raw ugly truth, and the truth is this: the system demands violence before it will intervene, regardless of the manifest vulnerability of someone. No violence, no help.
A safe, clean private group home was finally found for Ben, and those of us advocating for Ben rejoiced and said prayers of gratitude. Unfortunately, however, a week had passed and Ben had grown increasingly anxious as one day turned into another, and then into another. When we took him to the group home he was extremely paranoid and very frightened, and despite the dangers, was more comfortable with the idea of leading the life he had known, rather than taking a chance on a new possibility.
Exhausted and heartbroken, we acquiesced and took Ben to a truck stop, gave him $20, and sent him on his way. He smiled broadly and hummed as he climbed into the cab of a truck. For days I could hear his voice and feel the place on my back where he would pat me with his chubby hand and tell me that it was “ok” when he was turned down by yet another state agency. Our efforts perplexed Ben who knew far better than we that he “didn’t fit criteria.”
And so violence begets violence begets violence, and yet no one calls it violence— they call it “policy decisions” or “criteria”, or even “community standards.” As the storm continues to rage outside, I welcome the honesty of the storm’s power and potential destruction. It is exactly what it appears to be and never for a moment masquerades as anything but a storm, and never for a moment attempts to hide its true face.
In our civilized world, our world of social services and community standards we are left to face the following reality: the principalities and powers of our system are utterly incapable and bereft of that which is restorative, holistic, and compassionate. As Wendell Berry says, “people of wealth and power… cannot take any place seriously because they must be ready at any moment, by the terms of power and wealth in the modern world, to destroy any place.” To “the powers,” fellow human beings are either commodities or a nuisance. Ben was a nuisance that disproportionately drained resources, and so every attempt was made at every juncture to weed him out through “criteria;” not once did any government agency ever consider what was truly in Ben’s best interest. Not once did a social worker or case manager sit down with us and Ben to devise a plan to help Ben heal. The very notion of “healing” the broken is anathema to the powers. Criteria serve as boundaries that prevent those who cannot be “fixed” from obtaining desperately needed help, while simultaneously maintaining and preserving resources for a select few.
Yet these boundaries isolate us and they kill us by killing what is best in us. Our socially acceptable, institutionally encouraged boundaries act as salt in a field and thus compassion can never grow and love is but an abstract concept that certainly never calls us to get our hands dirty. The word compassion comes to us from the Latin pati and cum, and when taken together means to “suffer with.” To suffer with Ben was a dangerous and terrible experience, but beyond the terror and danger it was a beautiful and holy thing for it is always God who stands in solidarity with the beaten, the broken, and the socially damned, and in standing with Ben we stood with God, God with us.
Tent City is both a commodity and a nuisance. No other community in this fair but sinful city stands under the threat, nay the promise, that the “bulldozers are ready to roll and law enforcement is waiting to shut it down at a moments notice” if one more “thing” occurs at the campsite. For nine months I have been utterly bewildered by the urgency with which the most powerful of the city have sought to destroy the homes of those who are utterly powerless. The residents of Tent City have not built their shanty town atop oil, or gold, nor have they built their community in the path of immediate or impending construction. They have existed out of sight among us for twenty years and what little they have built with their own hands, by the sweat of their own brows, would have been demolished without a second thought given to the immorality and complete absence of justice that mark such actions. “By their deeds you will know them.”
This city can do better; I have seen better than this, and I have heard better than this from commissioners and councilmen alike. All it takes is a commitment to peace, the courage to hope, and the willingness to love as God loves and together we can create an entirely different reality, a reality that realizes the Kingdom among us. There is room for everyone at the table. So I beg you, do not turn away from those whom your actions would destroy, but turn toward them and show mercy, show compassion, suffer with them and in doing so you will gain your own freedom. If you refuse mercy, if you are deaf to the cries of the poor, if you crush the worker and continue to seek profit over life and espouse hording over sharing, then I fear for you and I have nothing but pity for you as the words of the prophet Amos echo in my mind: Are they better off than your two kingdoms? Is their land larger than yours? You put off the evil day and bring near a reign of terror. You lie on beds inlaid with ivory and lounge on your couches. You dine on choice lambs and fatted calves … You drink wine by the bowlful and use the finest lotions, but you do not grieve over the ruin of Joseph. Therefore you will be among the first to go into exile; your feasting and lounging will end.