“Where Are We Supposed to Go?”

By Justin Barringer, OTN Intern, Cary M. Maguire Fellow

It was thirteen years ago when I first started wandering around in the woods, beside railroad tracks, and under bridges looking for homeless camps in Nashville. Last month, during my first official day on the job with Open Table Nashville as a Cary M. Maguire Fellow, I was fortunate to once again be in the woods between some railroad tracks and a highway at a camp where about twenty people are living and surviving. When we pulled up to the camp, which is tucked away discretely behind a truck stop, there was a bulldozer piling up mounds of tree limbs and debris. As is often the case for our friends and neighbors living in these liminal and precarious spaces, this group is being threatened with removal from what is currently their home.

We were there to see how to help them organize and figure out how to fight, or if need be, to flee. The rumble of the bulldozer’s engine and the clanking of its tracks nearly overwhelmed our conversation as we met, but that only forced us to move closer together, to form a huddle, so that we could hear one another. I mostly just listened as distressed people showed the range of their humanity in moments of distress asking again and again, “Where are we supposed to go?” and in other moments asserting their own dignity and resilience by declaring, “We are going to fight this, to fight it together.” Lindsey and Haley, two of the leaders of OTN, who have years of experience in these situations, skillfully guided the conversation by helping their friends decide what course of action would best serve them in the fight for their right to exist.

For those who don’t know, Nashville, like many cities, is experiencing a housing boom, which means the city’s poor are enduring a housing crisis. There are simply not enough places for people to live. “Where are we supposed to go?” There are tens of thousands of unhoused people in Nashville, and that number is only growing. At the same time, there are new, and generally quite expensive, condos, apartments, and other developments going up all over the city, meaning that homeless camps are being displaced over and again, leaving fewer and fewer places for those experiencing homelessness to seek refuge. Shelter beds are full. Camps are being torn down. Old vacant lots and hidden away places are being developed. Low-income neighborhoods are gentrifying. “Where are we supposed to go?”

Housing prices have skyrocketed, with prices tripling or more in some neighborhoods. Where affordable houses and apartments once stood now there are condos, mcmansions, and “flipped” dwellings going up. Not only are our friends on the streets asking, “Where are we supposed to go?” but also our friends who have been in safe, decent, and affordable housing are now being forced to ask the same question. Nashville’s unhoused population has increased by at least a full third in the past five years. An increasing number of kind, dignified, hardworking, intelligent, and otherwise wonderful women and men, human beings, are asking “Where are we supposed to go?”

While we were at the camp a police officer pulled up to check in on the camp’s residence and remind them that they are supposed to be removed sometime in the coming days. As our friends gathered around the officer they once again asked, “Where are we supposed to go?” Regretfully, he responded, “I honestly don’t know.” Unfortunately, the answer to the question, “Where are we supposed to go?” is often prison, or worse, the cemetery. Last year countless unhoused people were arrested simply for trying to survive, for existing, as poverty becomes increasingly criminalized and policed. More people died due to homelessness (from infections, freezing to death, heat stroke, and other complications) than died of homicide in recent years in Nashville.

“Where are we supposed to go?”

None of the answers seem acceptable.

But, with the help, resources, and encouragement of organizations like Open Table Nashville, the voices of our unhoused friends are being amplified as they also declare, “We are going to fight this, to fight it together.” At least for the summer I will be joining the fight as I research models for a community land grant, help set up resources shelters, wash feet, and most importantly build friendships across a number of socio-economic lines as I join the chant:

“We are going to fight this, to fight it together.”