Open Table Nashville: Our Story
Open Table Nashville was founded in 2010 and is an interfaith homeless outreach nonprofit that disrupts cycles of poverty, journeys with the marginalized, and provides education about issues of homelessness. Our journey, however, started long before 2010. In the late summer of 2008, OTN’s founders were a ragtag team of homeless outreach workers, ministers, and volunteers who were introduced to Tent City, Nashville’s largest homeless encampment that was located on the banks of the Cumberland River.
Over time, we became friends with the residents, advocated with them for their rights, received hospitality from them, officiated at their weddings and funerals, and realized that a majority of the residents couldn’t stay at traditional shelters because they were couples, pet owners, working non-traditional hours, or struggling with severe mental health issues. We helped dozens of Tent City residents move into permanent housing, but as these residents left their tents, others moved in who were trying to survive the country’s Great Recession. In the late spring of 2010, about 140 people and over a dozen cats and dogs called Tent City home.
Then, in May 2010, the unthinkable happened. After record rainfalls, the Cumberland River and many of its tributaries flooded. Tent City and large swaths of Nashville were completely engulfed. As the waters rose, we evacuated the residents and their pets to the Red Cross Shelter at Lipscomb University and made a promise that would change our lives: we promised that we would not abandon them.
When the waters receded and the Red Cross Shelter closed, city officials condemned Tent City and failed to provide adequate solutions for the majority of the displaced residents, many of whom would be sent to the streets, only to be subsequently cited or arrested. Because we had promised the residents that we would stand beside them, we began organizing volunteers, collecting donations, and asking the city, churches, and landowners for land on which we could set-up a temporary encampment. Lee Beaman, owner of Beaman Toyota, offered us a 2-acre parcel of unoccupied land in Antioch, TN, so we moved about 40 of the displaced residents there. After spending 40 days on Beaman’s land, the city closed the camp because of outcries from the Antioch community who didn’t want “the homeless” temporarily in their “back yards” and because the land wasn’t zoned for camping. Hobson United Methodist Church in East Nashville offered to rent us their parsonage and we helped a number of displaced residents move there. For over two years, the parsonage—“Hobson House”—served as our transitional housing community.
After the post-flood chaos and months of 80-hour work weeks, we went on a two-day retreat in Southeast Tennessee. There, we came up with the name for our group—a group that was growing into a movement through the energy and tension that had been forming around us and around Tent City for years. We named it Open Table Nashville and in June of 2011, OTN was incorporated as an interfaith 501(c)(3) non-profit community. Since then, OTN has continued to grow and has been recognized locally and nationally with numerous accolades and awards. We continue to work toward personal and systemic transformation in Nashville and beyond.
“When people ask about the name ‘Open Table Nashville,’” says Director and Co-founder Ingrid McIntyre, “they ask if it’s about a ‘food thing.’ I tell them that we’re all motivated by our faith and that to us, an open table means a place where everyone is welcome. The table is never too full and there’s always an open seat. I guess we could have called it ‘Available Chair,’ but that didn’t have the same ring.” Co-founder Lindsey Krinks adds, “For us, an open table signifies fellowship, community, and radical inclusion. In other words, we’re not here just to make sure our friends on the streets get crumbs from the table. That is no more than charity. We’re here to make sure our friends have a place at the table, and that is about justice.”
*Many of these events are depicted in the documentary “Tent City, U.S.A.” The documentary aired in 2012 on the Oprah Winfrey Network. This documentary tells the story of Nashville’s Tent City before and after the devastating flood of May 2010. It also chronicles the group of outreach workers and advocates who journeyed with the residents and formed Open Table Nashville out of that experience. The trailer is available here and the documentary is available on Netflix.