It was the National Coalition for The Homeless that promoted the idea of an annual “Homeless Memorial Day”. They chose December 21st (the first day of winter) as the day on which to hold the memorial, so to highlight the hardships of living outside. In Nashville, that particular day usually doesn’t disappoint, providing some of the coldest and dreariest weather.
The Memorial is held in honor of those people who had died during the past year while homeless. Every year in Nashville, between 30 to 50 people die on the streets.
For several years, Nashville participated in the Homeless Memorial Day. Then the person who usually headed up the organizing of that event moved out of town and no one else stepped up to fill his shoes. There has been some recognition of that day with varied levels of success, but it’s not been the same since.
Homeless people die on the streets for a variety of reasons. Sometimes their deaths are directly related to life on the streets, sometimes not. Suicide rates are particularly high among homeless people. So too is liver disease. Cancer hits the homeless as well. Some deaths are accidental. Some homeless people are murdered. Sometimes it’s homeless-on-homeless crime, sometimes people with homes decide to hurt people who don’t have homes.
I have witnessed such things. Three young men, apparently in their 20’s, are walking back to their hotel after a night of drinking in the Honky Tonks on lower Broadway. They come across an old man trying to sleep on a heating grate near the library. Something didn’t look right about these three, so I began to approach them, though I was several yards behind them. I could hear them talking. They are deciding as to what to do about the old man trying to sleep. They laugh and joke, and then one of them says, “maybe we should just kick his ass”.
By then I’ve caught up with them. I recognize the old may trying to sleep. He’s in his 60’s, an alcoholic, a guitar “picker” who once played with the likes of Bill Monroe and Hank Williams.
I caught up with the three before they did anything. I started talking to them. I tried to reason with them. I asked them what good it would do to hurt the old man. Nothing they said made sense, although they all seemed to be in agreement. To them, the old man “needed” it. Homeless people need to be beat up, was their consensus.
Then their attention turned away from the old man and to me. Suddenly I was being threatened. “I think I could take you on,” said one of them to me. I considered my options and began to back off. After a tense minute, they backed off too. They now knew of my presence. I would be a witness to whatever they did. They gave up on the old man and started back towards their hotel.
This all took place about 2am. I went to a separate hotel and asked the guy at the desk to call the police. It took the cops 20 minutes to show up. And though I pointed out the hotel to them, the cops did nothing about it. (yes, in Nashville, just threatening to hurt someone is a crime.)
There was no real logic to what they had set out to do. But, that didn’t seem to matter to them either.
7 years ago, some friends were drinking at home when they decided it would be a good idea to drive into town and teach some homeless people a lesson. They eventually came upon a young woman asleep on a river dock. While she slept they rolled her off the dock and she fell into the fast moving current of the river. She cried for help. Someone tried to help her, the culprits ran off. The river dragged her underneath a barge and she drowned.
The search for her body went on for a couple days. By then it was suspected that she was under the barge. Still, politics and people’s general opinion about the homeless being what they are, it was seven days until the city moved the barge. And there they found her body.
Conversations amongst the homeless would come up occasionally about having a permanent memorial to all those who died on the streets. The city has many such memorials for all sort of people. Those who have died in war, people who died as cops. But, you know, cities don’t really like to admit that homeless people even exist, let alone admit that homeless people deserve a modicum of respect and dignity. Most people dismissed the idea as ridiculous. Certainly no one would take the idea seriously.
Well, a few homeless people, lead mostly by Howard Allen, a chronically homeless man, were serious enough to pursue the idea, would not give up on it. Seven years to the date of Tara Cole’s drowning, a small memorial was dedicated to her, and to all the homeless who have perished on the streets of Nashville.