In the late summer of 2008, OTN’s founders were a ragtag team of homeless outreach workers, ministers, and volunteers who were introduced to Tent City, Nashville’s largest homeless encampment that was located on the banks of the Cumberland River.
Over time, we became friends with the residents, advocated with them for their rights, received hospitality from them, officiated at their weddings and funerals, and realized that a majority of the residents couldn’t stay at traditional shelters because they were couples, pet owners, working non-traditional hours, or struggling with severe mental health issues. We helped dozens of Tent City residents move into permanent housing, but as these residents left their tents, others moved in who were trying to survive the country’s Great Recession. About 140 people and over a dozen cats and dogs called Tent City home by the spring of 2010.
And then came the great Nashville flood.
After record rainfalls, the Cumberland River and many of its tributaries flooded. Tent City and large swaths of Nashville were completely engulfed. As the waters rose, we evacuated the residents and their pets to the Red Cross Shelter at Lipscomb University and made a promise that would change our lives: we promised that we would not abandon them.
When the waters receded and the Red Cross Shelter closed, city officials condemned Tent City and failed to provide adequate solutions for the majority of the displaced residents — many of whom would be sent to the streets only to be subsequently cited or arrested. Because we had promised the residents that we would stand beside them, we began organizing volunteers, collecting donations, and asking the city, churches, and landowners for land on which we could set-up a temporary encampment.
Lee Beaman, owner of Beaman Toyota, offered us a 2-acre parcel of unoccupied land in Antioch, and we moved about 40 of the displaced residents there. After spending 40 days on Beaman’s land, the city closed the camp because of outcries from the Antioch community who didn’t want “the homeless” temporarily in their “back yards,” and because the land wasn’t zoned for camping. Hobson United Methodist Church in East Nashville offered to rent us their parsonage and we helped a number of displaced residents move there. For over two years, the parsonage—“Hobson House”—served as our transitional housing community.
After the post-flood chaos and months of 80-hour work weeks, we went on a two-day retreat in Southeast Tennessee. We wanted to find the right name for our group—a group that was growing into a movement through the energy and tension that had been forming around us and around Tent City for years.
So we named it Open Table Nashville. Often when people hear our name they ask if it’s about food. To us, an “open table” means a place where everyone is welcome, where the table is never too full and there’s always an open seat. An open table signifies fellowship, community, and radical inclusion. We’re not here just to make sure our friends on the streets get crumbs from the table. That is no more than charity. We’re here to make sure our friends have a place at the table, and that is about justice.
Many of these events are depicted in the documentary “Tent City, U.S.A.” which aired in 2012 on the Oprah Winfrey Network. This documentary tells the story of Nashville’s Tent City before and after the devastating flood of May 2010 and chronicles the group of outreach workers and advocates who journeyed with the residents and formed Open Table Nashville out of that experience. The trailer is available here and the documentary is available to rent on Amazon Prime.
For more background on our history, The Nashville Scene wrote an article around the time of our 10th anniversary.