Ubuntu: I am because we are.

By Mia Zera, OTN Spring Intern 2019

This word—ubuntu—has held significant meaning in my life. It is faintly stamped on the necklace I wear every day serving as a constant reminder of the kind of life I want to live, how I aspire to move through the world, and the foundational value in my relationships. It’s a South African philosophy that recognizes the common humanity in one another; that my pain, suffering, joy and celebration is bound up in yours. It is a principle that drove Nelson Mandela’s democratic movement following apartheid in South Africa and that fueled Desmond Tutu’s restorative justice movement known as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I also believe it is at the heart of the work Open Table Nashville is doing on a daily basis.

Being an intern, I’ve had the privilege of seeing ubuntu embodied in the many different facets of OTN. That said, I’ve spent the majority of my time doing outreach work. The outreach workers on staff recognize the dignity and worth inherent in each friend they meet experiencing homelessness by meeting them where they are at—literally. Physically, their body language is open and at an equal level, offering space for mutuality, commonality, and reflecting the humanity and dignity in one another. Self-determination is employed, recognizing our friends as experts of their stories and agents of change in their lives—when they are ready for change. Though challenging, this is how trusting relationships develop and flourish. It’s an empathic approach that says We are with you. We are frustrated with you at the lack of shelters available to keep friends warm on cold winter nights. We hurt and grieve with you when the city does not ask but tells you that you are no longer able to live in the place you call home, destroying the few precious belongings you have to your name should you fail to act fast enough. We are outraged with you at the fact that even though you might have served our country or literally helped build our city, there is still a lack of affordable places for you to live.

Once I began to take on these emotions—frustration, hurt, grief and outrage—I realized there was no turning back or unseeing the pain and suffering that is too often shrouded by the ever-growing attraction of Music City. That is why the work of OTN is so important—and urgent. This is a group of activists and advocates using their positions to amplify the voices of our friends on the streets. Our stories, our common humanity and our experiences of freedom are tethered to one another.

As my internship comes to a close, I can confidently say that never in my life have I been able to witness, experience and engage in the kind of radical inclusion, compassion and justice work OTN is doing. I think this work—and the philosophy of ubuntu—is so perfectly encapsulated in the following quote by Lilla Watson, an Australian activist, “If you are coming to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you are coming because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

Let us work together. OTN has helped me learn that working together also requires me to work within myself: staying in check with my privilege and biases and maintaining an ever-evolving posture of curiosity and positive regard for others. Working together also means that we (as our famous sign says) take care of each other, extending grace, patience and compassion where needed. The work I’ve been a part of through OTN as well as within myself this past semester have enhanced the meaning of ubuntu in a way I never anticipated, and I will forever be grateful.

Three Questions

By Joanie Sanders, OTN Spring Intern 2019

I began my internship at Open Table Nashville in January. Since then, I’ve been learning the ins and outs of outreach, homelessness, navigating the city (or, getting lost more often than not), and realizing every day that I still have so much more to learn.

I get to tag along with different staff members as they do outreach and get to know their friends along the way. I’ve had the privilege to listen to people, laugh with them, cry with them, and complain with them. Whatever they are feeling that day; I get to sit in it with them.

I have been asked these three questions a lot recently and wanted to share a few thoughts:

What do you do?
I never really know how to answer this question because I don’t have a set job description. The only thing consistent is the Open Table Nashville mantra, “Blessed are the flexible for they cannot be bent out of shape.” Every day we are on the streets doing what needs to be done. If someone needs socks or propane to keep them warm and dry do our best to get it. If someone needs a social security card or ID to get them ready for housing we can give them a ride and tag along as they get their documents. Things come up, emergencies happen, people are in serious need, so almost every day there is something I did not imagine doing that I end up doing. It may look like sitting in the ER with a friend or doing camp checks to make sure that everyone is okay. However it looks it never looks the same, and there is never enough done compared to the incredible need.

What is your favorite part?
My favorite part of working with Open Table Nashville is getting to be around people all the time. The conversations and human interactions I have with our friends on the streets every day is what I enjoy the most about being an intern. Whether it’s someone practicing their standup in the back seat of my car or someone telling me about their children as we wait at the social security office—I enjoy every moment of it and it fuels me to continue to do this work.

Why did they close Ellington? And where did everyone go?
This is a question I have gotten a ton recently and all I can say is that people do not want to see the camp. People do not want to acknowledge that we are failing people in our community by not having enough affordable housing. (This blog post goes a little more in-depth on the issue.) As for where people went, we know a lot of people moved to other parts of the city and continue to camp illegally because where else are they supposed to go? They had to take only what they could carry on their person that day and start all over again and find a new spot to feel safe and somehow find the supplies to do that. Just imagine being uprooted from your home right now and you can only take what you can carry—that is exactly how our friends felt.

This is some of the hardest and most rewarding work I have ever done. We’re just people helping people doing the best we can for all our friends. Throughout my internship I have been accepted and loved by all my new friends in ways I never thought possible. So, I encourage you to embrace our friends on the street because they will embrace you right back.

Ellington Camp Update

Today, one of Nashville’s largest and most visible homeless encampments was quietly bulldozed and closed by TDOT—Tennessee Department of Transportation—and Metro. One lone tent remains under the Ellington and Spring Street underpasses where over 30 once stood. When the eviction notice was issued for February 19th, many of us asked why. Why would our government evict people from their homes in the heart of winter, when it’s below freezing? Why would they evict people when there’s an affordable housing crisis and waiting lists are closed or stretch on for countless months?

And then it hit us.

Just two months from now, over 300,000 people are expected to flood into Nashville for the NFL Draft. The festivities will include a 3-day football festival held in the parking lots and areas surrounding Nissan Stadium—right around the former Ellington camp.

It is no secret that “sweeps” are common before major events. While we can’t be sure that is what is happening here, we’ve seen the same thing happen before the CMA Festival, before the Super Bowl in Atlanta, and before so many other other large-scale events: people experiencing homelessness are told to “move along,” cited and arrested for petty offenses like “obstructing the passageway,” and camps are cleared.

It seems to us that Ellington camp is the latest casualty in the ongoing clammer for cities like Nashville, Atlanta, Seattle, and others to present a cleaned-up image of ourselves to the world. This cleaned-up image seeks not to solve issues of homelessness by investing in and planning for enough affordable housing to meet the need, but to sweep the our disenfranchised neighbors under the rug—deeper into the woods and deeper into our jails and prison systems where they can’t be seen, where they can’t be heard, where their presence can’t offend those with money and means.

So where did everyone from the Ellington camp go? Mostly out of sight, out of mind. Mostly to other illegal encampments. We saw one former resident last week in the woods south of town who had just relocated. Others are heading north or to other outlawed patches of woods. A handful of folks were also able to enter programs or receive bus tickets home thanks to the work of really great outreach workers. And in the last year, at least 9 other residents moved into permanent housing, but not without years of work and years of waiting. (6 of those people were moved in by our east side outreach worker Haley!)

So let us be clear. As long as camps are being cleared, as long as people are facing displacement, we will keep standing in the margins with them bearing witness. We will also keep pointing toward solutions. We know that housing ends homelessness. We know that building a 100-unit Service Center downtown is a start, but it isn’t enough. We have to come up with a plan to create the 31,000 units of affordable housing we will need in Nashville by 2025. We need every Nashvillian to ask their elected officials to make this a priority and to mobilize their faith communities, coworkers, and friends to do the same. We are deeply grateful to everyone who is raising their voice with us and our friends to make a difference.

#housingendshomelessness #housingisahumanright #opentablenash

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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*