by Lindsey Krinks
Somewhere, not far from here, a child played in patches of snow and college students sledded down ice-encased hillsides. Somewhere, not far from here, a couple sat beside their fireplace, sipping hot chocolate and watching white crystal fluff drift to the ground. But somewhere, not far from here, a man commanded his numb feet to march to shelter to find food and warmth. And somewhere, not far from here, a couple shivered in their hidden tent, watching the last bit of their propane evaporate into thin, bitter air.
For over a week, the temperatures in Nashville lingered below freezing and the nights were dangerously cold—so cold that over 50 water mains across Davidson County froze and cracked; so cold that Public Works spread hundreds of tons of salt, brine, and even beet juice over Nashville’s roads to ward off ice. The cold spell even caught the attention of Mayor Karl Dean who asked the city’s Office of Emergency Management, Red Cross, Metro PD, churches, nonprofits, and outreach workers to work together to help the homeless community get indoors and out of the cold. Thanks to so many people working together in a coordinated effort, lives were saved and compassion and mercy became the tangible realities of warmth, sustenance, and comfort for the weary. For many of us, however, that meant long days and late nights.
The snow started here on Thursday, January 7th. On Wednesday, the Red Cross set up an emergency warming station and overflow shelter at Mt. Bethel Baptist Church for the homeless community, local churches opened their doors to take more people through Room in the Inn, the Nashville Rescue Mission extended its capacity, and homeless outreach teams coordinated a plan to go out every evening and find the stragglers—the dozens of homeless individuals who didn’t have the wherewithal to come indoors on their own, who would rather freeze than go to one of the city’s larger shelters or have been banned or barred from their quarters.
Each night, our homeless outreach team met to divide the city into manageable quadrants and load our cars with warm socks, gloves, jackets, sleeping bags, and emergency blankets for those who refused to come in. Then we set out to weave our cars in and out of the city’s salt-drenched roads until midnight. With the help of McKendree Church, Woodland Presbyterian, and Otter Creek, we were able to open our own alternative shelters where we could bring the individuals who, for various reasons, were unable to stay in the larger shelters. Our friends who live in a community house also took in two homeless couples and a dog from Wednesday to Sunday night.
From 6:00pm to 12:00am each evening, we picked up dozens of our friends on the streets—the handicapped, intoxicated, mentally troubled, kind hearted, quiet, rambling, dirty, broken, beautiful individuals who wouldn’t have otherwise come in. Despite a quote from the Mission in a Tennessean article on January 5th warning people not to pass sleeping bags and warm coats out to people on the streets, we gave dozens out, which may have very well saved the lives of some of our friends.
Since December, two homeless individuals have frozen to death and our friend Kevin at Tent City fell into his fire and burned. My heart is heavy for our friends who do not welcome the snow, who do not get snow days off, who do not sit by their fireplace with hot chocolate. Their toes and fingertips go numb first, then their entire feet and hands. Their noses run, their faces blush with windburn, their lips crack and chap. They warm themselves in gas stations where they are not welcome and on street grates that blast warm air. These are our brothers and sisters who wander without a particular destination, without a place to call home.
Gone are my romantic views of the snow; I have seen the suffering it brings. This is not a call, however, to feel guilty about enjoying the snow, but rather a call to be aware of the needs of those who can’t enjoy it. No longer can we shirk the responsibility of caring for our brothers and sisters on the streets to the government, nonprofits, or even our own congregations. Homelessness is a human issue, perpetuated by humans—you and me—who buy into a warped, idolatrous vision of society which bails out the wealthy and overlooks the poor; who fail to imagine what Jubilee economics would look like here and now; who domesticate the warnings of the prophets and the teachings of Jesus. So every day, make choices that bring life, “practice resurrection” as Wendell Berry would say, and for God’s sake, when emergencies happen, whether in Haiti or in our own back yards, respond with prayer and respond with concrete action.
Lives were saved because countless people across Nashville took responsibility and acted during the cold weather spell. Let’s not simply wait for another emergency to act, but let’s work together today to alleviating human suffering while also working toward the vision of creating a more peaceful and just local (and global) community where everyone has their basic needs met and is able to recognize their dignity and worth.
As for us, we are outreach workers and followers of Christ. We are tired, our work is never done, but we have hope. We long for a day of rest, but know that even when we get rest, our friends on the streets do not. They are too busy surviving, too busy commanding their numb feet to march to warmth, too busy building campfires and hunting propane tanks and food that will warm the flesh on their cold, tired bones.
As the Latin American prayer reads, “Lord, to those who hunger, give bread. And to those who have bread, give the hunger for justice.”