These days the term “Tent City” is applied to any grouping of self determined homeless dwellings. But, they weren’t always called that. Actually the name is relatively new, and has political underpinnings. The name connotes functionality and permanence – aspects of which seem necessary to promote in defiance of government agencies seeking to demolish them. When a homeless encampment near downtown Nashville was threatened with demolition, advocates for the homeless began using the term, Tent City, to describe and identify it.
When I first arrived in Nashville, and subsequently began my experiences with homelessness, homeless people were already occupying the area. Every ten years or so, someone would declare this encampment as the source of the majority of criminal activity in the downtown Nashville area, and crews were dispatched to “clean up” the area. The camp would be demolished. In the process, homeless people would lose all their possessions. But once media and government attention was drawn away from the camp, the homeless would return and rebuild it. It was an accepted part of the cycle of life of homelessness. But that has changed.
Now, there more people involved in homeless care. These people have learned they cannot depend on organizations like rescue missions to pick up the slack, so they have become personally involved. Homeless people are no longer defenseless against the will and whim of the powers that be. When I first became homeless, the only homeless advocates were other homeless people. Even homeless service providers such as the Nashville Rescue Mission, and the Salvation Army, remained silent in the face of mistreatment of the homeless. (Perhaps their preoccupation with sin and punishment precluded them from doing so.) Today, there are professional outreach workers, church clergy and lay people, and political and religious bodies whose sole purpose is the care and concern for homeless people.
Plans for demolishing Nashville’s Tent City have been postponed, allowing advocates to work with the homeless in the camp to get them the services they need, and to get them into regular housing whenever possible. From the time the government postponed the demolition until now, some 50 homeless people have been placed into housing, and many more have received vital care for the issues they struggle with. At last count, 140 homeless people resided in Tent City.
Then last weekend, literally out of the blue came a storm of epic proportions. More rain fell during those two days than ever recorded in Nashville. A week of sunshine later and the cost to the city is still being calculated. For any homeless person living along the river banks, it was a total washout. Tent City was destroyed and the residual toxins that came down the river with the flood have made the area uninhabitable. At least that’s the official word from city government. And of course they will enforce that.
Currently, the 140 former residents of Tent City are living in emergency shelters alongside other Nashville residents who lost their houses to the flood. Once those shelters are closed, these homeless people will have to find new digs.
The typical Tent City resident is what I would call hardcore homeless. Of the homeless journey, living in an encampment out in the woods is the end of the trail. Camp living is the harshest and often the most dangerous. A homeless person usually gets to the point of living in a camp only after exhausting all other options. They have usually been banned from, or cannot stomach living in a typical homeless shelter like a rescue mission or salvation army. They are fiercely independent and have grown to distrust organizations that claim to want to help them, or even other homeless people. Only the necessity of safety motivates them to locate their camps close together.
A website has been developed as a focal point, http://www.savetentcity.com/ There is more at http://amoshouse.wordpress.com/ and http://www.tennessean.com and http://www.oc-reachout.org/2010/05/5210.html and http://www.wsmv.com/video/23491739/index.html
to be continued….