Justin, Maguire Fellow in Nashville

Justin B. is a graduate student studying religious ethics. He was awarded a Maguire and Irby Family Foundation Public Service Fellowship for summer 2017 from the Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility at SMU. He is spending the summer volunteering with Open Table Nashville, which serves low-income and homeless populations.

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Where are we supposed to go?

It was thirteen years ago when I first started traipsing around in the woods, beside railroad tracks, and under bridges looking for homeless camps in Nashville. Yesterday, my first 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 20 people are living, 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 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 to figure out how to fight, or if need be, to flee.

A bulldozer clearing the brush that provides privacy for our homeless friends.

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 into a huddle to 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 Hailey, two of the leaders of Open Table, 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. As of right now there are an estimated 15-20 thousand unhoused people in Nashville. There are new, and generally quite expensive, condos, apartments, and other developments going up all over the city. Homeless camps are being displaced over and again, leaving 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 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 residents 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?” With deep sincerity and regret, he responded, “I honestly don’t know.” Unfortunately, the answer is often prison, or worse, the grave. Last year countless unhoused people were arrested simply for trying to survive, for existing, as poverty becomes increasingly criminalized and policed. In recent years in Nashville, more people have died due to homelessness, from infections, freezing to death, heat stroke, and other complications than from homicide. “Where are we supposed to go?” None of the answers seem acceptable.

Some of the tents where our homeless friends currently stay.

But, with the help, resources, and encouragement of organizations like Open Table, 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 – and join the chant “we are going to fight this, to fight it together.”

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