Canvassing 101

By Whitney Washington, Development and Volunteer Coordinator

Several nights ago, as the eclipsing moon hid behind the clouds, and the temperature dropped to the teens, I witnessed a side of Nashville few get to see. I met our city’s poorest and most vulnerable residents. In their cars, at camps, in tents, and on the side of the road, I met the folks on the margins.

I work for Open Table Nashville, a homeless outreach nonprofit. We believe that getting someone a coat or blanket or hot meal is just the tip of the iceberg of service. I’m proud of our outreach workers who consistently meet people where they are, provide them with the supplies they need, and eventually get them into housing. Through a collaboration with the city and other service providers, we canvass on especially cold nights to take people experiencing homelessness to a warming shelter. Since November, our team has already gone out nearly 20 times; our outreach workers do this in addition to their work during the day. As I work on the administrative side of the organization as the Volunteer & Development Coordinator, I had never been canvassing. This was an activity reserved for our outreach team and volunteers willing to brave the cold. But I decided that to do my job properly I needed to see all the work that our organization does, so last Sunday I went out canvassing for the first time.

I am not what many people would call a “warm” person. I don’t like hugging and struggle with small talk. So direct service has never been how I try to make the world a better place. I prefer advocacy and education and in my current position, fundraising. Needless to say, canvassing had always intimidated me. Seeing our outreach workers cram their cars with supplies, pile on layers upon layers of clothes, and answer texts while navigating around the city left me with the impression that canvassing was not something I could handle. I was extremely grateful to my coworker Georgia, our North Nashville outreach worker and housing navigator, who took me on her run with her.

From 7-11 p.m. we rode around in her car, stopping at all the secret spots that only someone who has been doing this kind of work a long time can know about. Off highways, in underpasses, and clearings backed up to neighborhoods, we found her people. She has spent countless hours searching for people, getting them to trust her, and then figuring out their needs. So she knows who needs propane to heat up their tent, and who just needs blankets. And most people want both. We quickly run out of propane, blankets, and coats. At one point, while in a parking lot off a greenway, Georgia gives a man the gloves she’d been wearing that night.

Despite seeing it with my own eyes, I would still describe some of the living conditions as unimaginable. And through those unimaginable conditions and blistering cold, everyone we talked to was so pleasant. We received so much thanks and a few “I love yous.” Georgia was able to catch up on camp gossip from one gentleman we took from the greenway to the shelter. Georgia asked one guy we recruited from an underpass what he wanted to listen to on the way to East Nashville. He just wanted to listen to Al Green. So we played Al Green. Down Charlotte Pike and across 40E and along Shelby Ave, we listened to some of Rev. Green’s greatest hits.

The shelter, which is officially known as the overflow warming shelter, is located at the Shelby Park Community Center. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s located in the heart of East Nashville, but maybe its spine. We drop off our first passenger (the first one who wanted to go to the shelter, most people prefer to stay with all their earthly possessions even when it’s 15 degrees outside) around 8PM and walk inside with him. We walk past a sign-up table and go inside the gymnasium. While the capacity is supposed to be 75, there’s at least 150 people crowded onto mats on the floor (the number that night would eventually rise to 210). Georgia sees one of her regulars and chats. He asks for a coat and then the guy next to him asks for one too. So she runs back to her car to grab what she has, then gives the new guy her phone number.

Georgia is a native Nashvillian so she’s able to dart through a maze of streets in Nashville and knows shortcuts all the new transplants could only dream of. But even to her, some of the city is difficult to navigate because it is an ever changing landscape. And these changes are quickly felt amongst our friends on the streets. They are arguably the canaries in the coal mine of gentrification; and some of our friends will meet a similar fate. While the repercussions for me for Nashville’s high-speed development was an ever-increasing rent that pushed me to buy a house earlier than I expected, others will feel those effects much more harshly. It is jarring to see rows upon rows of luxury apartments in construction and literally less than 100 feet away someone living in a shed.

One man, staying in a tent off I-65 refused to go to the shelter because he had to work in the morning. As the shelter was on the other side of town, he didn’t know if he could make it on time. Lots of unhoused people work, and damn hard too. But working and being able to afford housing are two very different things. This is not news, the city is aware of this issue.

I do not have some grand revelation about life and humanity. I can’t say that I learned anything especially insightful about dignity and despair. I don’t have any new critiques of capitalism. I just helped a few people and really liked how I felt.

 

How to Help:

Advocate: Call or email your city council representative and ask for them to prioritize affordable housing and increased funding for the Barnes Fund.

Donate: Donate supplies from our Amazon Wishlist or give directly to fund OTN.

Volunteer: Sign-up to canvass here and join our mailing list for updates on canvassing opportunities.

 

Just Sitting There Talking

By Lauren Plummer

As my season of work has been drawing to a close, I can’t help but reflect on the beginning. In the summer of 2011, I was healing from some life wounds and trying to figure out where faith and justice were calling me in the world. I had just moved back to Nashville and began volunteering at OTN because my friends, Lindsey and Brett, were some of its recent founders. Because of OTN’s Catholic Worker roots, I started reading The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day, very much in search of community myself.

In those days, when we weren’t on the streets or at Hobson House, you could find the sometimes handful of volunteer staff huddled around Ingrid’s kitchen table, taking on the post-flood housing crisis one day at a time and living on manna, as we often remarked. In our eight years, we have grown to a staff of fourteen, we’ve moved hundreds of people into new homes, we’ve built deep relationships and stood with our friends in struggles for justice. We now have thriving outreach and education programs and even a micro-home village well on its way. When I think of how much has grown since those early days, I remember these words of Dorothy Day reflecting on the growth of the Catholic Worker Movement, as I read them back in my first weeks:

We were just sitting there talking when lines of people began to form, saying, “We need bread.” We could not say, “Go, be thou filled.” If there were six small loaves and a few fishes, we had to divide them. There was always bread.
We were just sitting there talking and people moved in on us. Let those who can take it, take it. Some moved out and that made room for more. And somehow the walls expanded…
The most significant thing about The Catholic Worker is poverty, some say.
The most significant thing is community, others say. We are not alone anymore.
But the final word is love. At times it has been. . . a harsh and dreadful thing, and our very faith in love has been tried through fire.
We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other. We know [God] in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone any more. Heaven is a banquet and life is a banquet, too, even with a crust, where there is companionship.
We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.
It all happened while we sat there talking, and it is still going on.

People often want to know what is it that we as outreach workers actually do. At our best, we go wherever people are struggling and try to accompany folks on the way to wherever they need to go. We try to build up some community around people, and to the best of our ability, we try to not abandon people when things seem hopeless or we don’t know how to help. We try to keep showing up anyway, and bringing our listening and as much non-anxious presence as we can muster. In my experience, there has been a lot of trying and trying again.

So much of the substance of our work happens while we’re just sitting there talking with someone (or better yet, listening) at a camp, at the hospital, in a car, under a bridge, at the side of the road, or in an endless string of waiting rooms. It’s here in the mundane that impossible things have happened, little by little. It’s here in a thousand tiny moments where I’ve experienced the miracles of building trust and holding out hope. It’s here where I’ve sometimes been exhausted. And it’s here where I’ve been transformed.

I’ve seen no fairytale endings. I’ve buried a lot of people before their time and watched people I love get wrecked by addiction, violence, and oppressive systems. And I’ve also seen a lot of people keep on living or staying sober even when they didn’t think they could make it one more day. I’ve seen people finally get a little peace and then turn around to offer hospitality and a helping hand to folks still on the streets. I’ve seen people build communities out of almost nothing, and I’ve learned to count these things as miracles. I’ve learned that taking care of each other is our most holy work.

It’s hard to say what exactly has happened in these years or to put my finger on a single moment that changed me (though there have surely been memorable moments). So many of the joys and sorrows I’ll carry forever from this season have come from the times we were just sitting there talking and a friendship started to form, or a trauma finally found a voice, or we made space for anger and disappointment, or we laughed and found reasons for hope.

I don’t think Dorothy or I mean to say all of this just happened by accident or without our noticing. We certainly make plans, pay close attention, and invest great labor. I mean, rather, that proximity, presence, and persistence have been the key. What we practice every day in relationship with each other and the earth, especially in the small things, matters. We can and do climb mountains, a step at a time, when we keep showing up in whatever ways we are called — to speak the truth, to sit and listen, to bear witness, to love even when it feels like being tried through fire. Sometimes when all we know to do is be together intentionally, Love meets us and makes a way out of no way.

So much has happened in this wild and blessed journey. Though I ache to leave it’s daily rhythms and surprises, I know it will keep growing and going on. I give thanks for all the people who have trusted me to walk beside them, those who have shared their most tender stories with me, those who have made me laugh in spite of it all, and those who have been patient where I failed. I give thanks for my steadfast co-workers, for the ways we’ve struggled together, the things we’ve held, and for the depths of companionship we share. Because of you all, I have known community, and I am not alone anymore.

 

 

An outreach log: Friday morning; between 9:30AM – 11:30AM

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*

The Man on the Other End of the Phone

Someone recently said that all of my FB posts were depressing. I told him I planned to start posting pictures of puppies any day now. I haven’t found the exact right one but meanwhile, here’s a really good thing that happened at Open Table Nashville this week. This happens every week but the details are different each time.

A man I’ve never met called me on my work phone. He had a nice speaking voice, direct and engaging. He said he’d spent about the last few years trying to kill himself with alcohol (I’m paraphrasing) and he’d lost everything now, had gone to treatment, been sober thirty days, was currently homeless, working at a temp service, staying in a motel some nights, trying to get into transitional housing, and very aware that his sobriety was at risk. He was emotional. Rightfully so. I asked him a number of questions and tried to dial back his desperation a little by going through some options. It became clear that all he really needed was one of two things, either the first month’s rent, Four-hundred-seventy-five dollars, or free room and board for a couple of weeks until he could save the money himself.

It seemed possible from my view but I told him that the only guarantee I could give him was that I’d do the best I could to find a solution. Last week (in a similar but far more harrowing situation) I spent the money of a number of churches and agencies and felt obligated to give them a break. Instead, I called on a friend who long ago, found himself in a similar situation. I figured if anyone had access to information or contacts, it would be him and come to find out, I was right. He hooked me up with programs, benevolence funds, and a couple of humans who were willing to brainstorm ideas. I began to get excited, thinking it might happen but still not sure it wouldn’t take another week. A week is a long time in the mind of someone who is just out of rehab. The four of us exchanged e-mails for a minute. When my original friend realized we weren’t looking for a scholarship but more of an entry fee, he wrote: Will $475 do the trick for him?
Then he wrote: Put me down for it. Can I just pay with Paypal to you?

That is when I was humbled out of my skull at 6:25 on a Wednesday morning. I thanked my friend for his sustained generosity and then — I got to call a man who the day before was worried sick for his life and tell him that some kind person gave him the money.

This moment, this phone call, is a precious gift to everyone involved, the patron, the human, and me. There aren’t any guarantees in this sort of work. There’s no criteria, no checklist or tool that can capture and qualify the results of these human experiences and no need for it. This is nothing but skidding head long into loving the people that surround us, even when it could be awkward or inconvenient. It’s about making a choice, about adding stability to someone’s life. It made him cry. He offered to buy me lunch (remember we’ve never met). I told him to get settled into his new routine and call me once he was down the road a bit and I hope he does. And just because it was in fact, that sort of day.. here’s a puppy.

Creating Community

By Hunter Burns, Intern Summer 2018

Before arriving in Nashville, I came from a small town of about 330 people. It was a farming community in southwest Minnesota where all the retired farmers gossip at the gas station for their entertainment. Growing up in a small community, I learned to keep my crowd small. Yet, it’s hard to not know everyone and connect with everyone in a small community.

Then, I decided to make the journey to Nashville for the summer, where I completed an internship with Open Table Nashville. When I arrived in Nashville, I knew nobody. It was a new place. I had new coworkers. I had to find new friends. For a while, it was quite challenging. It seemed so daunting to go out and find new friends, a new community.

Through my experiences with Open Table Nashville, I have learned that we have the power to add to the community. We have the ability to form relationships and create bonds that cannot be broken. Many of our friends on the streets long for a sense of community. Some are fortunate enough to find that community, and others might struggle at times. Open Table is able to foster some community through movie nights, resource shelters, and other gatherings for our friends on the streets.

Like some of our friends, Open Table Nashville became my community.

As I complete my internship and head back to Minnesota, I won’t merely miss the city or my friends at Open Table Nashville. I will miss my friends on the streets. They go by many names…Greg. Harry. Susan. Brian. Sharon…to name a few. A community is whom we surround ourselves with. A community will give the shirt off their back for someone in need. A community will wash each other’s feet and share in lively conversation. A community will stand together in solidarity and advocate for change and social justice.

I encourage you to connect with your community. Find out what community means to you. Grow with your community. Be inspired by your community. Ignite your community in social change.

Lastly, I charge you to be a friend to everyone you meet, and don’t forget to smile today! ☺

The Reality of Being Unhoused

By Lauren Morgan, Summer Intern 2018

As I stumbled through the woods on a rainy and sticky morning, I couldn’t get my mind off of all of the bugs that were probably crawling inside my backpack and on my jacket. We were headed to a campsite. I’m usually not one for the outdoors, especially walking through the woods without a trail to follow and tree branches smacking me in the face. “Welcome to the table,” I thought as I wiped raindrops off my cheek. When we arrived, it was as quaint as a permanent campsite in the woods can be, but it was home to someone.

Walking into a campsite, you have to understand that you are walking into someone’s home. The broken shopping cart and bucket by their tent door is the equivalent of an entryway table in a subdivision style home. Their belongings are scattered, but they are exactly where they are supposed to be. It looks like a mess at first glance, but it is a perfect home.

Once I began to see these things, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I had seen homelessness before, but walking through someone’s home had a greater impact on me than I thought it would. I felt all of the feelings I was expecting to feel: guilt, privilege, and so many other things I don’t have words for. But I also felt a sense of responsibility. I thought about what I had been told by an outreach worker: these people we serve have voices, so we don’t need to speak for them. We just help amplify it.” I then decided I was put at Open Table to make a difference, and our unhoused friends were there to make a difference in me as well. While I felt a rush of compassion for the people I was meeting, I was also hit with a harsh reality that I knew existed but I didn’t ever want to face it.

In 2013, 29 benches that the unhoused used to rest were removed from the downtown Nashville area. This was to ensure that the unhoused would not be visible on the streets. This succeeded in taking away places to rest, not giving people homes. The 2018 Point In Time count of unhoused people in Nashville was at 2,298. This number doesn’t even begin to cover the other 18,000 living in temporary shelters, their cars, transitional housing, or those who were currently hospitalized or in jail. There isn’t any more time to be forgotten about when you are unhoused. 118 lives slipped away in Nashville in 2017 due to being unhoused. This includes death from illness, extreme weather conditions, hunger, getting hit by cars, and abuse. People are dying just trying to survive another day. It shouldn’t be this hard. There isn’t any more time. Homelessness is not something to be glamorized. It’s graphic, violent, and very real. Things have to start changing now. Affordable housing ends homelessness. Fair opportunities end homelessness.