Project Homeless Connect is a one-day, one-stop event to provide people experiencing homelessness with access to a broad range of services, including medical check-ups, eye screenings, foot care, legal services, employment assistance, pet care, food, toiletries, and more.
Joseph Manners, Computer Programmer and member of Covenant of the Cross in Madison, TN
How did you get involved with OTN?
I have been working with several organizations in Nashville on behalf of my church, Covenant of the Cross in Madison, TN. However, so many organizations merely want money or behind the scenes help. We sponsored one organization in Nashville for two years providing food, clothing, and what they said was their third highest amount of monetary donation. When I kept pushing that I wanted the body of my church to do hands-on work, I was given several hoops from their organization to jump through. I’d agree to everything and do what they asked and then they would add another layer. I finally said, “Tell me what it will take.” Finally, they said that they wanted a two-year commitment by each person and they would decide what help that person could do. I explained to everyone, including the sitting president of this organization, what we had done and what we would continue to do as long as they allowed us to have hands-on participation. So you can tell based on the story they decided it made more sense to have a moving target of direct hands-on participation than to keep the donations of time, effort, and money coming to this organization.
I decided that we needed to break from that organization and seek out a group that needed people to do hands-on work. I found Open Table Nashville and came to several events explaining that OTN seeks out the tent cities and works directly with those living there. I knew better than to attempt to get involved in this area independently because I had done it before and realized how volatile that can be because we are outsiders and potentially seen as someone that could hurt them.
While we have done many things so far, the direct participation of working with your friends experiencing homelessness has been limited to the Christmas dinner. But I know that we will sponsor several nights this year at various locations.
Open Table Nashville does great things. I have seen this personally. I know that they help people that otherwise cannot help themselves. For that alone my hat goes off to OTN and all of the paid and volunteer staff.
What types of things have you participated in?
I have been involved with several different volunteer (aid) type of groups over the years. Initially, I started in church by following those in need (homeless, most often). For years I worked with a group that would carol at least four times a year at nursing homes. Then I worked with a downtown homeless organization. A group that I truly enjoyed was working with the families that had young children within 2 different hospitals. We would divide into groups providing Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners for those caretakers for the children, some washed clothes, some gave out gifts, some sat with the families just to let them vent. I have to admit that it was overpowering to see the help that I was providing.
You are a regular volunteer – why do you choose to spend your volunteer time with OTN?
I always think of this event. I worked with a downtown organization and on one particular year we gave out gifts. I gave my gift to a homeless woman. It was a rather expensive sweater that would provide warmth beyond belief. I was smug. I was arrogant. I remember telling her “I know that you are homeless, but I wanted you to know that this gift is going to make your day.”
She responded by telling me “Oh baby, I am not homeless, I am merely without permanent shelter. The home is where your heart is. I have a home. I have faith that one day I will have a permanent shelter again. I pray that when that happens that stay on the straight and narrow to keep it. I fight everyday to stay on the straight and narrow. So don’t feel sorry for me. Pray for me. I will pray for you.”
I have never felt so small. I didn’t realize her perspective of her situation. I have never forgotten what we do for those in need is merely to give back hope and to give back a shred of decency that they may have lost. I have been humbled by that event and was changed permanently.
Has your involvement changed the way you perceive your unhoused neighbors?
Yes. This time around when I am working with my church, Covenant of the Cross, I wanted them to understand that homelessness comes in different varieties. The working poor, those who beg out of necessity and those with emotional and drug issues. I want them to help me touch by not only providing things to your organization but by doing a hands on approach. During our Christmas dinner in 2017, I chatted with everyone before they went to each location. I reminded them that they will be changed if they allow it. That helping those in need (as the Bible tells us to do) will change you. But by opening your mind and actually talking to each person you are helping them by reminding them that your family and friends may have abandoned you for any reasons but we are here to remind you that you matter. We care about you.
By doing the above no matter who you see on the streets you will not automatically go to the thought of, “Get a job.”
What advice would you give to new volunteers or people thinking about getting involved?
I believe helping others is what we are called to do scripturally. I believe that if you continue to help instead of it being a pat on your back you will learn that it should be part of your everyday situations. By that I mean that you will start to help and never think about what you are doing it will become second nature to you. How great is that? You will put a smile on your face and others. They will in turn do the same. How great can our small world be if we all just lend a helping hand?