By Haley Spigner, OTN Street Outreach and Resource Navigator
An outreach log: Friday morning; between 9:30AM – 11:30AM
Angela, one of our interns followed me into the extended stay hotel to meet Clara*. I had never met her but knew that the hotel was a very temporary fix, a gift from a family member out of state. Clara has three kids but the oldest two are in school and the baby plays Top 40 songs off YouTube on her phone. Clara started to tell us a little bit about herself: she was working full time making $17/hour and she and her husband had a place and were doing well. Then she had debilitating kidney stones and missed a week of work. Then she had to have her gallbladder removed and missed another week. And that was it. The job couldn’t keep her on and they were out of their home within weeks. They stayed in hotels for a couple weeks while she was struggling to find another job. They hustled and made ends meet but funds ran low and eventually they ended up staying in a storage unit. Finally, last week, the funds all ran out and they were on the street. When all of the safety nets had failed, Clara reached out for help from a state agency and was immediately threatened with the loss of custody of her children. That’s a harsh threat for any mother, but especially one that was bounced through the foster care system most of her childhood, being sexually assaulted multiple times along the way.
Not far down the street we pulled in the driveway of a house that seemed to be held up by the trees on each side with a porch full of tricycles and toys. Tammy* met us outside with a cautious wave. I quickly learned that she too was terrified to reach out to me because she had been threatened with DCS involvement. Tammy is on a limited disability income and has three kids, two are twin teenagers and an 11-year old. The driveway we’re standing in is her mother’s, who for the majority of Tammy’s monthly check, allows the kids to all share one room and Tammy to sleep in a truck in the driveway. The arrangement is similar to the one that Tammy’s sister has, her children sharing one of the other bedrooms in their mother’s home. On any given day, at least 10 people are living in this tiny home with a couple more sleeping in the cars parked in the drive. These cramped living arrangements have resulted in some seriously strained relationships, but are still a much better option to Tammy who also suffered serious abuse as a child.
Angela and I park at a truck stop and try to not be noticed as we cross the street and enter the woods. My friend Curtis, OTN’s current social media poster child, has told me that he has a friend that is pregnant and living in the tent behind him who he wants me to meet. When we reach the tent, Curtis isn’t home and is nowhere to be found. About to leave, my eye catches movement in the back of the camp and someone answers my call as they start to climb out of the tent. It’s Kayla* but I’m not sure of that until I see how she softens when I tell her my name. Clearly Curtis has bragged on me, which comes in handy. We talk and Kayla tells me that she has been receiving prenatal care and is 5 months pregnant. I explain the process for her next steps, give her some bandaids to give to Curtis, and promise to touch base with her next week.
Now technically, none of these women are eligible for assistance through the family shelter resource that I offer them. Clara is living in a hotel and therefore not “literally homeless”. Tammy is technically not a homeless family since her kids are inside her mother’s home. And Kayla is not quite pregnant “enough” to count as a family unit until her third trimester. When Clara and I call the hotline, we’re told that she is in fact on the waitlist for family shelters—has been for a month actually, which is promising. The women on the other end of the phone is kind and gentle in her reminder to us both, “Now hun, y’all remember there are only 25 beds available in these programs for the whole city.” Even I am shocked at that number. Twenty-five? Total?
This is the type of homelessness that is rapidly growing. It’s hiding in the hotels, squeezed into 1,100 square foot houses with 10+ people living in them, tucked away in the woods, out of sight. Families that have been striving to make ends meet in our city for years are reaching their breaking point and there are no safety nets there to catch them. This is the type of homelessness that we can so easily overlook. These mommas get really, really good at staying under the radar; they are scared to ask for help for fear of subjecting their children to the same pattern of abuse that they survived as children in state custody.
Agencies that specifically serve families are doing amazing, life saving work every day here in Nashville. I have so much peace when referring my friends to their services knowing that whatever my folks define as their family, they will be welcomed and supported fully within the walls of these agencies. I have experienced a level of flexibility and creativity paired with dogged determination to end family homelessness that is nothing short of inspirational. They, like all of us, are also operating within a system that is broken and getting crumbs from the table here in our IT CITY.
I had a professor in college that told the story of a group of friends that was having a picnic by the river and saw a child out in the current, barely staying above water. They jumped in and saved her, bringing her back to the shore and calling for help. When they looked back to the water, there were several more kids in the river and dozens more coming from upstream. After a while, they split into teams, some swimming out and saving the kids while others ran upstream to figure out who on earth was throwing these kids in the river. I tell that story a lot when people ask me what OTN is all about. We’re here to break the cycles of poverty caused by broken systems that lead to our friends being without housing. We’re also here to walk alongside those that are still stuck in the cycle.
It’s both, and; and this is what sets OTN sets us apart and what really lights my fire. It also means that no matter your skill set or where your heart is drawn, there’s a place for you at the table to dig in because as hokey as it may sound, it is going to take all of us.
*For the sake of their privacy, I have changed the names of those I mention in this story*