Tuesday morning, February 12th at 8:15 a.m., I will go to court with three of my unhoused friends for citations we received for “unlawfully pitch[ing] a tent at a metropolitan park” during an action led by house-less organizers called “Occupy Nashville with the Homeless” on December 15th.
“Our only demand is for emergency housing,” said organizer Jay Weaver about the action. “Not another emergency shelter, not another emergency Rescue Mission, but emergency housing. Emergency means urgent. That’s not something that we’re going to plan to do five years from now. It’s something that needs to happen right away.”
On a chilly Saturday night last December, dozens gathered on Walk of Fame Park just across from Bridgestone Arena to draw attention to the need for #housingnow. We made signs, passed out snacks, and gave out bedding to people who wanted to join the demonstration. We marched down Broadway chanting, “No justice, no peace! No living on these streets!” and “What do we want? Housing! When do we want it? We want it now!” And after speaking to Predators fans and tourists, we settled in like so many of our unhoused friends do every night on the cold concrete of our city.
Earlier that morning, many of us gathered to honor and remember 127 people from the homeless community who died in 2018—the highest number of deaths ever recorded in Nashville. The large sign that held all 127 names and a Mother Jones quote that read, “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living,” was propped in front of the action on the sidewalk for all to see. This work, this struggle for housing, is life-or-death. Another person dies every three days on the streets of our shiny city.
So. The police came before the park “officially” closed at 11:00 p.m. to notify us that anyone who remained in tents would be cited under Metro’s “no camping” ordinance that states, “No person shall tent or camp or erect or maintain a tent, shelter or camp in any park, except in those areas specifically designated by the board for such purpose.” Not only was this interesting because more than a dozen tents were allowed in this same park for concert-goers who camped out in October for the Twenty One Pilots show without incident, but it was also interesting because the rain was coming. Did we not have a right to shelter ourselves from the elements when other shelter and housing could not be obtained? At that hour, the Mission’s doors were closed. Anyone who was out at that point was out for the night. Three incredibly brave people who call Nashville’s streets home choose to risk citation. Here’s why:
“We’re doing this for the homeless,” said Bobbie, “to get the homeless off the streets, because we don’t deserve to be on the streets.”
“We’re doing this to raise awareness of people who had forgotten that there are people who are out there that need to be in a house that deserve it,” said Travis. “Everyone deserves a second chance, regardless of what the situation may be, regardless of what the circumstances may be. Everyone deserves a second chance.”
“I used to be on SSI [disability],” explained Justin. “I was making $750 a month and I couldn’t afford no rent nowhere, except in a drug-filled neighborhood, which, I’m clean off drugs. I’m doing this to help me get off the streets and to give awareness for everyone that’s out there to let them know that there’s people with medical conditions, pregnant, and that cannot sleep in the cold, that they need housing so we can get help.”
Bobbie, Travis, and Justin were courageous enough to participate in civil disobedience, despite what it could cost them, and I choose to stand in solidarity with them. My role as a street chaplain calls me to accompany my friends. It calls me not just to be present to their sufferings, but to struggle alongside them as they work for change. After all, if more of us knew what it felt like to sleep on concrete in the cold, miserable rain—if we knew what it felt like to try to survive in Nashville’s unforgiving shadows—perhaps we would work a little harder and a little faster for justice.
So on Tuesday morning, Bobbie, Travis, Justin, and I will plead “not guilty” to our citations. Why? Because the 1st Amendment protects “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” and because the 8th Amendment protects us and others who are experiencing homelessness from “cruel and unusual punishment” when we are simply trying to exist, to rest, and to shelter ourselves from the elements.
“We just want to have a peaceful demonstration and share the awareness for emergency housing,” Jay told the officers who came to issue citations. “You’ve been an officer in this area and you’re fully aware that there are people who live on the streets who deserve to have a place. You’re also aware that there’s been people who have died on the streets and we want to be a part of preventing that from happening. Nobody deserves to die on the streets. But somebody has to push for emergency housing. There are some people who are not as concerned and don’t see emergency housing as urgent. But they step over people and they know that people can create disturbances in front of different businesses downtown. We want Nashville to be a beautiful city and a wonderful city for everybody. Not for those who can afford a $500 hotel, but for those who choose to take residence here. This should be a city for them and that’s what this whole demonstration is about.”
So, Nashville: Will you continue to cite and arrest your own people? Will you continue to sweep them out of sight, out of mind like you’re doing by closing one of the largest homeless encampments in East Nashville just in time for the NFL Draft? Or will you take seriously the people’s cries for emergency housing now? Will you take seriously their cries for a plan to address the dire shortage of low-income and affordable housing in our city?
And to our city leaders: your words, your sympathy, and your presence at our memorials is not enough. We need your action. And we won’t stop until our city is a welcoming, just, and equitable city for all. Let’s work a little harder and a little faster to make this happen together!
(Special thanks to our attorney Mike Engle, to photographers Kyle Lincoln and Susan Adcock, and to Neon Guard Nashville for your support. If you’d like to watch the livestream preceding the citations, please visit here.)