It is only January 1st and it has already been a terribly cold winter—the coldest we’ve had in years. Even when the sky is bright and clear during the day, the icy air still chaps and burns everything it touches at night. Yes, only January 1st and we’ve had 17 nights of emergency warming shelters: 17 nights where the temperature was below 25 degrees, 17 nights where we took in everyone we could find: the couples (young and old), the pet owners, those banned or barred from other shelters, those who are too mentally or physically ill or too hurt, cynical, or intoxicated to seek shelter elsewhere. The people who come in wear hospital bracelets and clothing incapable of warding off the cold. They have persistent coughs they cannot shake, but are willing to help us with the shelters. They are so thankful just to be warm, just to have a meal, functional restrooms, and reprieve from the violence and trauma of the streets. We dress their wounds, listen to their stories, hunt through donations for warmer clothes, and simply seek to provide some form of refuge. But the need is for so much more than these emergency shelters—for so much more than any temporary shelter. We are always saying that the answer is more affordable and accessible housing. The answer is community, it is truly embracing and empowering our brothers and sisters, it is working together to create an economic system that no longer exploits the poor.
Yes, we are tired from all the shelters—two more this week and the possibility of four next week—but every night we open is worth it and so many incredible volunteers and faith communities have joined us. There are other things I long to do with my time (especially, to be back on the streets again, more often), but the work lately—the calls, emails, paperwork, coordinating shelters, shuttling around supplies, going to meetings—has been constant. But every night we open is worth it—for everyone who helps and for all the people (and pets) who come in out of the cold.
Tomorrow, January 2nd, marks the one year anniversary of James “Jimmy” Fulmer’s very public death. He froze to death on the steps of a church in East Nashville on a night when the temperature dropped to 25 degrees. He was visible from the street with only a thin blanket covering his wounded, shivering body. And Metro is still dragging their feet on a cold weather emergency plan—a plan they promised to have in place last January. “We’re working on it,” they say. It was nearly a year ago and so many in our city and churches still haven’t learned. We shuttle the poor out to wealthy churches, hold extravagant dinners, and then shuttle them back downtown only to drop them off beneath a bridge on the coldest nights, not thinking about how they will keep warm or where they will go. We cite and arrest them for sleeping on park benches and heating grates when there is nowhere else for them to go.
In his recent encyclical, Pope Francis says, “No one must say that they cannot be close to the poor because their own lifestyle demands more attention to other areas. This is an excuse commonly heard in academic, business or professional, and even ecclesial circles… [N]one of us can think we are exempt from concern for the poor and for social justice.” Indeed. We have so much work to do, but we do not do it alone. Yes, we must all take personal responsibility for the suffering of the poor—our brothers and sisters—but it will only be possible to create lasting change if we embrace this responsibility as a people, as a community. May God help us. May God give us the courage, humility, creativity, and compassion to keep confessing the ways we fall short, to keep moving forward, and to keep living into the creation of a new and better world in the shell of the old.
(If you’d like to help with emergency warming shelters, please contact email@example.com or visit www.opentablenashville.org.)