Take it Easy

By Susan Adcock, West Side Outreach

Larry had a hard time staying at the hospital. I got to where I’d take his boots with me so he couldn’t leave. Toward the end it worked but he was pretty sick by then and didn’t fight as hard. Some of us professionals were offended at this behavior — this refusal of free health care, and labeled him an idiot for leaving against medical advice. Others of us knew that he was losing the war with alcohol and a lifetime of trauma. He started going to jail when he was just seventeen. The hospital felt like jail.

A month ago, after six months of weekly or bi-weekly visits to the hospital for congestive heart failure, Larry coded in his hospital room. Later, the doctor told me that no one on the team believed he’d make it to morning but somehow he’d miraculously survived. The doctor called me himself after digging through Larry’s wallet for evidence that someone actually cared about him. 

“The next time, it’ll be different,” he said. “He won’t survive it. He needs someone to give him ‘the mom talk’. Is that something you could do?” 

“Oh definitely,” I said. 

The next morning I walked into Larry’s room and without saying hello I said: “Do you want to be buried or cremated?” 

Without hesitation he said “Cremated.” 

“What do you want done with your ashes?” I shot back.

There was a long pause then while he thought about it and finally he said: 

“You decide.” 

“If you leave it up to me you’re going to end up at a beach” I said. 

“Sounds good to me,” he said grinning. 

I  went on to do the “mom talk” wherein I explained all of the things Larry already knew about alcoholism and dying of congestive heart failure; including brain damage and the chances of lying around in a diaper for two years after a massive stroke. Sadly, all things I’ve seen happen. He then repeats what I already know, which is that the only thing that will extend his life, even for a few months is a place to live; an apartment with a lock on the door and a bathroom with a shower in it.  When he’s finished I apologize (not the first time) to him for not being able to find him a house sooner because we both know he is going to die any minute, with the next pint or the next cigarette, or the next time he goes without food for two days. It’s just a matter of time.  

A week later he was back in. The doctor called me again, again his heart had stopped, and asked if I could come to the hospital and help him make decisions for Larry. I was there in twenty minutes. It wasn’t looking good and I knew that because they let me stay in the room and hold Larry’s hand while a team of five people saved his life again. This took about nine and a half hours across a shift change. By the time he was stable, he had a respirator, a heated blanket and twelve different drugs going into his veins. 

Twenty hours later Dr. Larry Franks called again to say it wasn’t working. It was pretty clear he’d suffered some neurological damage and wouldn’t be able to survive off the respirator. A few minutes later I walked into his room for the last time. I laid my phone at his ear and we listened to the Eagles and Bob Dylan for close to an hour and a half as the monitor above his head wound down from critical to nothing. Two nurses came in with stethoscopes. They listened and looked at their watches and each other, until the very last beat of his heart and a beautiful, complicated, hilarious misunderstood human spirit flew away into the ether. 

This is the cost of homelessness. Not only a human life but hundreds of thousands of dollars as well. People so thoroughly traumatized they can no longer function – self-medicate, fall into a shame spiral and never get out because they’re denied housing, one of the most basic survival tools in the kit. It’s suicide and murder, all rolled into one and my job, it would seem, is to make it stop. It’s like being in a fist fight every day. Some days it works and other days I just have to hold a someone’s hand and be a witness.

Epilogue: There will be a short memorial service for Larry on Friday June 28, at 10 a.m. at “the rock” in Centennial Park. “The Rock” is a marker for the Trail of Tears located at the front of the park, just across from McDonald’s. I presented written evidence that Larry wanted to be cremated to the city of Nashville’s indigent burial program, but I’m not a blood relative and it wasn’t a legal document. They consulted their attorneys and refused. So in the true spirit of Larry and his well of stubborn resistance, I’ve raised the money and will see that he gets to the beach next week.


2019 Point-In-Time Count

Open Table Nashville’s statement on the results from the 2019 Point-In-Time Count: Homeless advocates claim homelessness is on the rise in Nashville despite lower count

On May 8th, MDHA reported a 14% decrease in homelessness in Nashville due to a lower number from the annual “Point-in-Time” (PIT) Count, but this number was never meant to tell the full story of what is going on with homelessness in Nashville.

While MDHA’s final PIT Count number only found 1,986 people experiencing homelessness, we estimate that approximately 20,000 people are un-housed in Nashville—a number high enough to completely fill Bridgestone Arena. For instance, the PIT Count only found 62 people in families with minor children this year, but according to the Metro Nashville Public Schools, 3,368 homeless children have been identified so far in the 2018-2019 school year—up 5% from 2017-2018. That does not include children whose housing status is not reported, the number of adults in their their family, or children who are too young to attend school.

Due to the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s federal definition of homelessness, the PIT Count can only include people found in shelters, transitional housing facilities, outside, in a vehicle, or in abandoned buildings. MNPS and the Department of Education use a broader definition under the McKinney-Vento Act. As an outreach organization, we are on the streets day in and day out. We see new faces on the streets every week and know the names and stories of the people living without stable housing in Nashville who aren’t included in the count. We know the disabled couple who is couch surfing because they were evicted when a developer flipped their apartment. We know the mother and children living in a $250-a-week bug-infested motel while they wait on subsidized housing. We know the man who is in the ICU for a traumatic brain injury. We know the man who is in jail because he was arrested for trespassing for sleeping on private property. None of these people are included in MDHA’s PIT Count.

While we believe that homelessness will continue to grow in hidden and obvious ways in the Nashville area and beyond until we adequately address our affordable housing crisis, we are also proud of the ways homeless service providers, the Metro Homeless Impact Division, and others are working together to connect struggling individuals and families with housing in one of the tightest housing markets in the country. We are also making notable strides in decreasing homelessness among veterans and youth from ages 18-24 and that is something to be celebrated.


Ubuntu: I am because we are.

By Mia Zera, OTN Spring Intern 2019

This word—ubuntu—has held significant meaning in my life. It is faintly stamped on the necklace I wear every day serving as a constant reminder of the kind of life I want to live, how I aspire to move through the world, and the foundational value in my relationships. It’s a South African philosophy that recognizes the common humanity in one another; that my pain, suffering, joy and celebration is bound up in yours. It is a principle that drove Nelson Mandela’s democratic movement following apartheid in South Africa and that fueled Desmond Tutu’s restorative justice movement known as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I also believe it is at the heart of the work Open Table Nashville is doing on a daily basis.

Being an intern, I’ve had the privilege of seeing ubuntu embodied in the many different facets of OTN. That said, I’ve spent the majority of my time doing outreach work. The outreach workers on staff recognize the dignity and worth inherent in each friend they meet experiencing homelessness by meeting them where they are at—literally. Physically, their body language is open and at an equal level, offering space for mutuality, commonality, and reflecting the humanity and dignity in one another. Self-determination is employed, recognizing our friends as experts of their stories and agents of change in their lives—when they are ready for change. Though challenging, this is how trusting relationships develop and flourish. It’s an empathic approach that says We are with you. We are frustrated with you at the lack of shelters available to keep friends warm on cold winter nights. We hurt and grieve with you when the city does not ask but tells you that you are no longer able to live in the place you call home, destroying the few precious belongings you have to your name should you fail to act fast enough. We are outraged with you at the fact that even though you might have served our country or literally helped build our city, there is still a lack of affordable places for you to live.

Once I began to take on these emotions—frustration, hurt, grief and outrage—I realized there was no turning back or unseeing the pain and suffering that is too often shrouded by the ever-growing attraction of Music City. That is why the work of OTN is so important—and urgent. This is a group of activists and advocates using their positions to amplify the voices of our friends on the streets. Our stories, our common humanity and our experiences of freedom are tethered to one another.

As my internship comes to a close, I can confidently say that never in my life have I been able to witness, experience and engage in the kind of radical inclusion, compassion and justice work OTN is doing. I think this work—and the philosophy of ubuntu—is so perfectly encapsulated in the following quote by Lilla Watson, an Australian activist, “If you are coming to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you are coming because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

Let us work together. OTN has helped me learn that working together also requires me to work within myself: staying in check with my privilege and biases and maintaining an ever-evolving posture of curiosity and positive regard for others. Working together also means that we (as our famous sign says) take care of each other, extending grace, patience and compassion where needed. The work I’ve been a part of through OTN as well as within myself this past semester have enhanced the meaning of ubuntu in a way I never anticipated, and I will forever be grateful.

Three Questions

By Joanie Sanders, OTN Spring Intern 2019

I began my internship at Open Table Nashville in January. Since then, I’ve been learning the ins and outs of outreach, homelessness, navigating the city (or, getting lost more often than not), and realizing every day that I still have so much more to learn.

I get to tag along with different staff members as they do outreach and get to know their friends along the way. I’ve had the privilege to listen to people, laugh with them, cry with them, and complain with them. Whatever they are feeling that day; I get to sit in it with them.

I have been asked these three questions a lot recently and wanted to share a few thoughts:

What do you do?
I never really know how to answer this question because I don’t have a set job description. The only thing consistent is the Open Table Nashville mantra, “Blessed are the flexible for they cannot be bent out of shape.” Every day we are on the streets doing what needs to be done. If someone needs socks or propane to keep them warm and dry do our best to get it. If someone needs a social security card or ID to get them ready for housing we can give them a ride and tag along as they get their documents. Things come up, emergencies happen, people are in serious need, so almost every day there is something I did not imagine doing that I end up doing. It may look like sitting in the ER with a friend or doing camp checks to make sure that everyone is okay. However it looks it never looks the same, and there is never enough done compared to the incredible need.

What is your favorite part?
My favorite part of working with Open Table Nashville is getting to be around people all the time. The conversations and human interactions I have with our friends on the streets every day is what I enjoy the most about being an intern. Whether it’s someone practicing their standup in the back seat of my car or someone telling me about their children as we wait at the social security office—I enjoy every moment of it and it fuels me to continue to do this work.

Why did they close Ellington? And where did everyone go?
This is a question I have gotten a ton recently and all I can say is that people do not want to see the camp. People do not want to acknowledge that we are failing people in our community by not having enough affordable housing. (This blog post goes a little more in-depth on the issue.) As for where people went, we know a lot of people moved to other parts of the city and continue to camp illegally because where else are they supposed to go? They had to take only what they could carry on their person that day and start all over again and find a new spot to feel safe and somehow find the supplies to do that. Just imagine being uprooted from your home right now and you can only take what you can carry—that is exactly how our friends felt.

This is some of the hardest and most rewarding work I have ever done. We’re just people helping people doing the best we can for all our friends. Throughout my internship I have been accepted and loved by all my new friends in ways I never thought possible. So, I encourage you to embrace our friends on the street because they will embrace you right back.

Ellington Camp Update

Today, one of Nashville’s largest and most visible homeless encampments was quietly bulldozed and closed by TDOT—Tennessee Department of Transportation—and Metro. One lone tent remains under the Ellington and Spring Street underpasses where over 30 once stood. When the eviction notice was issued for February 19th, many of us asked why. Why would our government evict people from their homes in the heart of winter, when it’s below freezing? Why would they evict people when there’s an affordable housing crisis and waiting lists are closed or stretch on for countless months?

And then it hit us.

Just two months from now, over 300,000 people are expected to flood into Nashville for the NFL Draft. The festivities will include a 3-day football festival held in the parking lots and areas surrounding Nissan Stadium—right around the former Ellington camp.

It is no secret that “sweeps” are common before major events. While we can’t be sure that is what is happening here, we’ve seen the same thing happen before the CMA Festival, before the Super Bowl in Atlanta, and before so many other other large-scale events: people experiencing homelessness are told to “move along,” cited and arrested for petty offenses like “obstructing the passageway,” and camps are cleared.

It seems to us that Ellington camp is the latest casualty in the ongoing clammer for cities like Nashville, Atlanta, Seattle, and others to present a cleaned-up image of ourselves to the world. This cleaned-up image seeks not to solve issues of homelessness by investing in and planning for enough affordable housing to meet the need, but to sweep the our disenfranchised neighbors under the rug—deeper into the woods and deeper into our jails and prison systems where they can’t be seen, where they can’t be heard, where their presence can’t offend those with money and means.

So where did everyone from the Ellington camp go? Mostly out of sight, out of mind. Mostly to other illegal encampments. We saw one former resident last week in the woods south of town who had just relocated. Others are heading north or to other outlawed patches of woods. A handful of folks were also able to enter programs or receive bus tickets home thanks to the work of really great outreach workers. And in the last year, at least 9 other residents moved into permanent housing, but not without years of work and years of waiting. (6 of those people were moved in by our east side outreach worker Haley!)

So let us be clear. As long as camps are being cleared, as long as people are facing displacement, we will keep standing in the margins with them bearing witness. We will also keep pointing toward solutions. We know that housing ends homelessness. We know that building a 100-unit Service Center downtown is a start, but it isn’t enough. We have to come up with a plan to create the 31,000 units of affordable housing we will need in Nashville by 2025. We need every Nashvillian to ask their elected officials to make this a priority and to mobilize their faith communities, coworkers, and friends to do the same. We are deeply grateful to everyone who is raising their voice with us and our friends to make a difference.

#housingendshomelessness #housingisahumanright #opentablenash

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Canvassing 101

By Whitney Washington, Development and Volunteer Coordinator

Several nights ago, as the eclipsing moon hid behind the clouds, and the temperature dropped to the teens, I witnessed a side of Nashville few get to see. I met our city’s poorest and most vulnerable residents. In their cars, at camps, in tents, and on the side of the road, I met the folks on the margins.

I work for Open Table Nashville, a homeless outreach nonprofit. We believe that getting someone a coat or blanket or hot meal is just the tip of the iceberg of service. I’m proud of our outreach workers who consistently meet people where they are, provide them with the supplies they need, and eventually get them into housing. Through a collaboration with the city and other service providers, we canvass on especially cold nights to take people experiencing homelessness to a warming shelter. Since November, our team has already gone out nearly 20 times; our outreach workers do this in addition to their work during the day. As I work on the administrative side of the organization as the Volunteer & Development Coordinator, I had never been canvassing. This was an activity reserved for our outreach team and volunteers willing to brave the cold. But I decided that to do my job properly I needed to see all the work that our organization does, so last Sunday I went out canvassing for the first time.

I am not what many people would call a “warm” person. I don’t like hugging and struggle with small talk. So direct service has never been how I try to make the world a better place. I prefer advocacy and education and in my current position, fundraising. Needless to say, canvassing had always intimidated me. Seeing our outreach workers cram their cars with supplies, pile on layers upon layers of clothes, and answer texts while navigating around the city left me with the impression that canvassing was not something I could handle. I was extremely grateful to my coworker Georgia, our North Nashville outreach worker and housing navigator, who took me on her run with her.

From 7-11 p.m. we rode around in her car, stopping at all the secret spots that only someone who has been doing this kind of work a long time can know about. Off highways, in underpasses, and clearings backed up to neighborhoods, we found her people. She has spent countless hours searching for people, getting them to trust her, and then figuring out their needs. So she knows who needs propane to heat up their tent, and who just needs blankets. And most people want both. We quickly run out of propane, blankets, and coats. At one point, while in a parking lot off a greenway, Georgia gives a man the gloves she’d been wearing that night.

Despite seeing it with my own eyes, I would still describe some of the living conditions as unimaginable. And through those unimaginable conditions and blistering cold, everyone we talked to was so pleasant. We received so much thanks and a few “I love yous.” Georgia was able to catch up on camp gossip from one gentleman we took from the greenway to the shelter. Georgia asked one guy we recruited from an underpass what he wanted to listen to on the way to East Nashville. He just wanted to listen to Al Green. So we played Al Green. Down Charlotte Pike and across 40E and along Shelby Ave, we listened to some of Rev. Green’s greatest hits.

The shelter, which is officially known as the overflow warming shelter, is located at the Shelby Park Community Center. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s located in the heart of East Nashville, but maybe its spine. We drop off our first passenger (the first one who wanted to go to the shelter, most people prefer to stay with all their earthly possessions even when it’s 15 degrees outside) around 8PM and walk inside with him. We walk past a sign-up table and go inside the gymnasium. While the capacity is supposed to be 75, there’s at least 150 people crowded onto mats on the floor (the number that night would eventually rise to 210). Georgia sees one of her regulars and chats. He asks for a coat and then the guy next to him asks for one too. So she runs back to her car to grab what she has, then gives the new guy her phone number.

Georgia is a native Nashvillian so she’s able to dart through a maze of streets in Nashville and knows shortcuts all the new transplants could only dream of. But even to her, some of the city is difficult to navigate because it is an ever changing landscape. And these changes are quickly felt amongst our friends on the streets. They are arguably the canaries in the coal mine of gentrification; and some of our friends will meet a similar fate. While the repercussions for me for Nashville’s high-speed development was an ever-increasing rent that pushed me to buy a house earlier than I expected, others will feel those effects much more harshly. It is jarring to see rows upon rows of luxury apartments in construction and literally less than 100 feet away someone living in a shed.

One man, staying in a tent off I-65 refused to go to the shelter because he had to work in the morning. As the shelter was on the other side of town, he didn’t know if he could make it on time. Lots of unhoused people work, and damn hard too. But working and being able to afford housing are two very different things. This is not news, the city is aware of this issue.

I do not have some grand revelation about life and humanity. I can’t say that I learned anything especially insightful about dignity and despair. I don’t have any new critiques of capitalism. I just helped a few people and really liked how I felt.


How to Help:

Advocate: Call or email your city council representative and ask for them to prioritize affordable housing and increased funding for the Barnes Fund.

Donate: Donate supplies from our Amazon Wishlist or give directly to fund OTN.

Volunteer: Sign-up to canvass here and join our mailing list for updates on canvassing opportunities.