Tent City

Tent City, U.S.A. – 2013 Updates

tent city, usaposted by Lindsey

The documentary “Tent City, U.S.A.” was recently added to Netflix and we have been getting a lot of questions about where the residents are now and what is going on. Tent City, U.S.A. tells the story of Nashville’s largest Tent City before and after the devastating flood of May 2010.  While many of the residents have been able to access housing, others have not. Finding safe places to sleep or camp in Nashville remains difficult, especially for people who can’t  (or won’t) seek shelter in traditional places like the Mission – people who have pets, who work non-traditional work hours, who have spouses/partners, or who simply can’t handle the harsh, jail-like environment of our over-crowded shelters. While we have approximately 4,000 men and women who are unhoused every night, we only have about 1,500 units of shelter and transitional housing. There are over 100 smaller encampments in the Nashville area, but the “new Tent City” in Nashville is less than a mile away from the old Tent City and is at Green Street Church of Christ. For nearly 2 years now, Green Street has allowed people to live in tents on their property while they are working on finding permanent housing. Church leaders are claiming religious land use (RLUIPA) to do that which can trump city codes and zoning ordinances. Wendell recently built a privacy fence for the camp (or “sanctuary”) and we do outreach there and work to help the residents access housing and other needed services.

Tent City reunion, 9.26.13Open Table Nashville, an inter-faith non-profit, was formed in the months after the flood. Jeannie Alexander and Doug Sanders, who were featured in the documentary, were co-founders of Open Table along with Ingrid McIntyre, Lindsey Krinks, and Brett Flener. If you’d like to join in the work we’re doing, visit our website at www.opentablenashville.org. Our mission is to disrupt cycles of poverty, journey with the marginalized, and provide education about issues of homelessness. We are still connected to and involved with most of the people featured in the documentary, and Wendell Segroves was recently appointed to the Metro Homelessness Commission! These are our friends. As aboriginal organizer Lilla Watson once said, “If you’ve come to help me, you’re wasting your time. But if you’ve come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

celebration1If you would like to volunteer with Open Table Nashville, please contact regina@opentablenashville.org and if you’d like to donate to the work we’re doing, please visit here. Jeannie Alexander is still connected to issues of homelessness, but her daily work now involves working with prisoners. Doug Sanders is no longer a presence on the streets or in the camps and has moved into other sectors of work, but Open Table continues to do the good work that was documented in Tent City, U.S.A. Please join us in this work and spread the word. Breaking cycles of poverty and homelessness and transforming unjust structures takes all of us working together!

Tent City, U.S.A.

Last night, the documentary “Tent City, U.S.A.” aired on the Oprah Winfrey Network. This documentary tells the story of Nashville’s Tent City before and after the devastating flood of May 2010.  Unfortunately, not enough has changed since the flood. Now more than ever, we need an officially sanctioned encampment in Nashville. Metro Police have been targeting all unsanctioned encampments including former Tent City resident Macgyver’s last campsite which was destroyed by the city about a month ago. With harsh anti-homeless and anti-camping laws, Nashville needs a safe zone for all of the people who can’t  (or won’t) seek shelter in traditional places like The Mission – those who have pets, who work non-traditional work hours, who have spouses/partners, or who simply can’t handle the harsh environment of our over-crowded shelters. While we have approximately 4,000 men and women who are un-housed every night, we only have about 1,500 units of shelter and transitional housing.

We need a safe-zone or an officially sanctioned encampment. We need more outreach workers like Jeannie Alexander, a founding member of this community. And we desperately need more accessible and affordable housing.

Open Table Nashville, an inter-faith non-profit, was formed in the months after the flood and has taken Hobson House under its umbrella. Jeannie and Doug, who were featured in the documentary, were also co-founders of Open Table. If you’d like to join in the work we’re doing, visit our website at www.OpenTableNashville.org. Our mission is to disrupt cycles of poverty, journey with the marginalized, and provide education about issues of homelessness. We are still connected to and involved with most of the people featured in the documentary. They are our friends. As aboriginal organizer Lilla Watson once said, “If you’ve come to help me, you’re wasting your time. But if you’ve come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

Sanctuary and Burning Stars

by Jeannie Alexander

November brought this city life, new life born in the streets in defiance of indifference, new life preparing us for Advent and the waiting to come.   As this article is written the last few days of Advent lead us to hope in the messianic promise fulfilled, in the fullness of time the revolution in Mary’s belly revealed.  And my boasting and fearlessness is put to the test as I preach to a crowd that the cross that we wear around our necks is a symbol to all that the very worst they can do to us is put us to death, and there is no power in death for we believe in the God of resurrection.  And the world obliges, and puts us to death.

I look to the God of resurrection at 1:00 a.m. on December 2 as my friend and brother in Christ, Cecil, is injected with chemicals deemed too inhumane to be used in the euthanization of animals.  It’s so cold outside as he dies. We stand in the freezing rain outside Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, marking the minutes; bleeding heart abolitionists, Jesus too had a bleeding heart.  I watch the ambulance slowly pull into the prison 10 minutes before murder and I begin to shake, this madness need not continue, and he doesn’t have to die.  This does not have to happen!  I begin to pray: hail Mary full of grace the Lord is with thee, blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb Jesus, holy Mary Mother of God pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death amen.  I pray not for a miracle but for mercy, mercy in death.  My friend dies with the word “love” on his lips.  Sweet mercy.

One week and a day later it is still so cold, so very very cold.  In the morning hour just before dawn another man dies, a man without a home, burning, burning so hot like a star fallen to Earth, silent as a burning Buddhist monk protesting the brutal regime of the South Vietnamese government.   Like a wise woman struck dumb, following a star, I stand at Kevin’s deathbed under a bridge in the dirt.  Three hours after he burns I arrive at his camp, a camp marked now with the carbon etched form of a body staining the ground curled up against the stones of the fire pit; our own little Hiroshima in Tent City.  His camp mates say there was not a sound, no screams from the dying man.  Silent resignation perhaps or perhaps he was dead before he ever hit the ground, infused with yet more killing chemicals, as primed as the creosote soaked timber he was burning.   

We pray as a group trying to understand, and I tell the members of the dead man’s camp “this is not God’s will.  This is not the Kingdom among us.  This is society’s failure to abide by God’s will. In the beloved community every man shall sit under his own vine or under his own fig tree undisturbed.”  Kevin’s death was not the result of divine punishment, but of human indifference.  

Kevin’s camp mate and friend pulls an old dirty grey blanket toward us, it is filled with what the police left behind after their investigation: burned twisted bits of glass, and plastic, shoes, and Kevin.  He tells us that it was Kevin’s wish to be buried at sea.  Although he could not swim, Kevin said it was to be his baptism.  And so we grant his request in the sea of the Cumberland as his friend proclaims “I baptize you in the name of the Father.”  It is finished, and we stand on holy ground, on tortured ground.

Both men were killed by a culture of death: one man directly murdered in a clinical sanitized pantomime of a medical procedure, the other man killed indirectly, but no less assuredly, by a society that will pay millions for the death penalty (hundreds of thousands more than the cost of life in prison, never mind the possibility of restorative justice over the current model of retribution), billions for war, and a brass farthing for low income housing. 

I want to lash out, where were all of you so called pro-life members of the community, be you Christian, Muslim, or Jew?  It’s so very easy to be pro life when the person in question is one so innocent they’ve not yet touched the earth, but what about the condemned man, what about the homeless man?  Where are your demands for life? You hypocrites of omission, your silence kills. 

But I am too tired to lash out.  I need to heal; I look for the resurrection and the life in the world to come. I seek sanctuary.  And though I carry within me the heart breaking knowledge that two more brothers have died this Advent, frozen to death in the Nashville cold, I carry too the aching anticipation of a new world revealed by a Suffering Servant, a God that Thomas Merton described as mercy, within mercy, within mercy.  

(This article was published in the January issue of The Contributor.)

The Dark Side of Nashville’s Winter Wonderland

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.”

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.