By Abby Hyman, Open Table Nashville Intern
For the first week or so of my internship with Open Table Nashville, I was stumbling over boxes that seemed to find their way into every nook and cranny of my 650 square foot apartment. My husband and I were moving to Mount Juliet after living in the heart of Nashville for the majority of our first year of marriage. When we toured the apartment during the final months of our senior year of college, we romanticized living together for the first time after 6 years of dating and were willing to live anywhere we could afford. We didn’t care that we’d have to follow each other around like lost puppies to navigate the apartment, or that our bed would barely fit into our bedroom and we’d have to suck our tummies in and slither between the wall and the bed frame to get into bed each night.
When we signed our lease, we didn’t notice that the walls and cabinets were painted dark neutral colors, that there was minimal natural light seeping in, no storage to hide the hodge podge collection of random junk we’d acquired as hand-me-downs, or how the chaos of busy 8th Ave S. would ignite my anxiety every time I had to turn left out of the parking lot. During the first few weeks, it was a sweet story I imagined we’d tell to our kids in the future — you know, of how we’d do anything for love, just to be together. But by the end of the first month, this “sweet” story turned into a desperate prayer – Lord, help me not lose my sanity and please, for the love of God, give me some time to be by myself.
It wasn’t until we moved into our new apartment 12 months later that I realized the power of a house—the physical space one lives in—and the drastic impact it has on your mental health, physical health, and feelings of peace, security, and self worth. As the first few weeks of living in our new place unfolded, I realized how my wellbeing struggled to be cultivated in the tiny apartment we were living in previously. Now, we could open the windows and let in sunlight and fresh air. We could indulge our deep desires for hospitality, giving our guests a bed to sleep in rather than an old couch in our living room. We could cook dinner together without having to put pots and pans in our living room, dining room, and “guest bedroom,” because they all were the same in this tiny space of less than 300 square feet. How much more is this truth for another human who lives in a tent hidden in the woods.
I find it no coincidence that my initial shock from the glimpse into homelessness I experienced during my first few days at OTN occurred simultaneously with my move into a beautiful, Nashville-esque apartment community. During the day I’d be at a campsite under a bridge, sitting on a milk crate on the “porch” of a tent that a friend experiencing homelessness invited me onto to chat. At night, I’d be mounting my flat screen TV and organizing *two* closets of clothes, one for winter clothes and one for summer. #wut #privilege
Open Table Nashville was founded on the truth that housing is a human right. Many of the most vulnerable folks in our communities sleep on concrete streets, in broken tents, hidden in the woods, or under a bridge. Once you see homelessness, you cannot look away, because it’s unfathomable that people in the “It” city, and other cities around the globe, live in conditions that you wouldn’t dare let your pet live in. Folks who are medically vulnerable, folks who have experienced heavy amounts of trauma and violence, and elderly and disabled folks all live on the streets of Nashville. No comfy bed to rest and recover in, no door to keep the curious stranger out after dark, no shower to wash away the sweat of a full day spent in the hot summer sun. When you realize that housing is healthcare, that housing is security and dignifying, how can you deny the fact that housing is a human right?
I’ve begun to face my overwhelming privilege as it juxtaposes the reality of many of the folks living on the streets, and I see two worlds existing simultaneously. In one world, there is flood insurance for days of torrential downpour. In the other, a quick summer rain destroys everything one owns. One world is full of opportunity and comfort, people who have the support of their families, and the ability to make choices of what to order at Barista Parlor and what photo of their designer dog to post on Instagram. In the other world, a free bottle of lukewarm water, a clean pair of socks, eye contact and a five dollar bill from a stranger…are all gifts that declare a good day.
A friend I’ve met through my experience at OTN spoke this truth, stating that if you haven’t experienced homelessness—actually wondered through the streets with no place to call home—you have no idea of the realities of this life. He said if people with power could experience homelessness just for one week, everything would change. The barriers to housing would be eliminated. “Creepy people” as Bob Goff describes, would be given a second chance and easier to love.
I agree with my new friend. Although I do not hope you experience the atrocity of homelessness, I employ you to open your eyes. To connect with the stranger flying a sign on a street corner. To volunteer with Open Table Nashville at their resource shelter. To give a hot meal or cold bottle of water to a new friend who is living on the streets.
Open your eyes. See the realities of homelessness. You won’t be able to look away.