Benjamin “Ben” John Osterlund is a 21 year old junior at Vanderbilt University from Evanston, IL. He regularly volunteers at Open Table Nashville’s biweekly resource shelters as an Inn Keeper, meaning he stays at the shelter overnight giving him plenty of time to form relationships with other volunteers and unhoused neighbors.
How did you get involved with OTN?
I had been volunteering at Safe Haven Family Shelter and was loving my experience and the impact it was having on me. I was also realizing the depth of the homelessness problem in Nashville, and I wanted to do more to help. I actually just looked online and found Open Table Nashville, who I had heard good things about from friends and people in the Vanderbilt community. Their inn keeping opportunity caught my eye-it was so unique and it worked really well with my college schedule.
What types of things have you participated in?
I have always been an inn keeper, and it is one of my favorite things to do. I’ve been able to help out at the Hillcrest, Barth Vernon, and Inglewood resource shelters, and each time I meet some amazing people and have some discussions that really change my perspectives. One of the most meaningful experiences I have had was as a inn keeper last December-Lindsay, who was the shelter coordinator that night, needed an extra hand for canvassing. It was a frigid night, and I got the opportunity to ride along with her and try to help some of our unhoused neighbors get out of the cold. The images and the conversations I had that night broke my heart in a lot of ways, and I think about them all the time; it was an experience that definitely has inspired me to commit myself to the fight to end homelessness.
You are a regular volunteer – why do you choose to spend your volunteer time with OTN?
I truly believe inn keeping is one of the best doses of perspective I could possible find. It gives me a chance to leave my busy college life and all my college friends to get out of the “Vandy Bubble” so to speak. It helps me put others before me and think for a night what it would be like to not have a home, to not know exactly where my next meal was coming from, to not have the security blanket of my friends and family. Every single time I inn keep, I always come back to campus very thankful for what I have, and with added motivation to continue to serve.
The other main reason that I love volunteering with OTN is the other innkeepers and the volunteer staff I get to work with. I have met some amazing people—some who are formerly homeless individuals who are now choosing to help others, and some who are members of OTN who are dedicating their lives to this issue. They have great stories and inspiring demeanors. Plus, they’re just fun to hang out with!
Has your involvement changed the way you perceive your unhoused neighbors?
Absolutely. I think that from an outsider’s perspective, it is easy to put our unhoused neighbors into a singular box, regarding homeless people with stereotypes like dirty, criminal, or other very negative, very untrue things. Spending time in the resource shelters has humanized the issue of homelessness for me. I’ve met people with Masters degrees, people with four adult children, and people who are working three jobs to try to get back on their feet. It has also made me recognize more of the structural things causing homelessness problems like the lack of affordable housing in Nashville and the gap in mental health services. I no longer am associating my unhoused neighbor’s condition with their actions, since I know there are often larger forces at play.
What advice would you give to new volunteers or people thinking about getting involved?
Do it for you! Inn keeping has helped me meet such amazing people, has added so much color to my life, and has helped me grow so much as an empathetic leader that I really feel indebted to OTN. For new volunteers, it is hard for me to describe how impactful some of these experiences can be; my best advice is to find the time, commit yourself, and just do it.