(This talk was given as a part of First Unitarian Universalist’s “MLK Day: State of the Dream” event.)
In the realm of homeless outreach, our friends on the streets don’t come to our building, our office, like they would come to another service provider. On any given day, our “office” is found in the campsites, slums, and seedy motels. It’s in the jails, ER waiting rooms, and psych wards. It’s where the poor, our friends, live and struggle and die.
At Open Table Nashville, we meet people where they are physically and geographically, but also emotionally, mentally, and spiritually and we share the journey with them. Sometimes that looks like helping them access mental or physical health care and permanent housing. Sometimes that looks like being a consistent presence to remind them that they’re not alone. Sometimes that looks like standing beside them when Metro is threatening to close their camp and reminding them that they too have a voice, that they too have power. And sometimes, that looks like going to hours upon hours of City Council and Planning Commission meetings and standing on the cold granite of Legislative Plaza, crying out for change.
So you will rarely find us in our office which is a small second-story room that was donated to us by a very kind church. Our work happens outside the walls in condemned and contested spaces in Nashville. And our strength comes from something more than bricks and mortar. It comes from the relationships we have with our friends on the streets and in the community. It comes from the hunger for justice that burns like a fire in our bellies.
So my talk today is entitled “The State of the Dream and Why I Stopped Serving the Poor.” We’re gathered here on MLK weekend to discuss the state of MLK’s dream in our community and how we can move beyond models of service to models of justice and solidarity.
So what kind of dream are we talking about? MLK’s dream was about a world free from the prisons of poverty, from the dehumanization of discrimination and racism, from the spirit of fear and greed and hate. The dream is about realizing and embodying the Beloved Community in the here and now. So how are we doing on realizing this dream in Nashville?
When we look at issues of poverty, housing, and homelessness, I’m afraid we’re not doing very well. When our poverty rate increased to 19.9% last year, meaning that every 1 in 5 Nashvillians are entrenched in poverty, the dream is not being realized. When the waiting list for Section 8 is over 14,000 people yet public funding is being pumped into financing more luxury condos, hotels, and elite development projects, the dream is not being realized. When homelessness is steadily increasing and countless low-income families are being displaced by gentrification, the dream is not being realized. When a minimum wage worker has to work over 110 hours a week just to afford “fair” market housing, the dream is not being realized. And when a 69 year old woman freezes to death in her car in Madison for lack of adequate housing and shelter, the dream is not being realized.
So why in, in this climate, did I stop serving the poor and how can we go beyond models of service to models of justice? The idea of “service” too often means a one-time event where the “have’s” give temporary relief to the “have-not’s.” While these events can certainly meet immediate needs, they do nothing to change the larger system where so many require such relief. Part of Open Table’s mission is to disrupt cycles of poverty so we don’t just help the people who are drowning in the waters of poverty and despair – we go up stream to see why so many people are in those waters in the first place.
So I stopped serving the poor because what is needed is not service but solidarity. What is needed is not charity, it’s change. Concrete, systemic change. I stopped serving the poor because “the poor” are not projects to manage or problems to solve… they are brothers and sisters – siblings – to love and journey with and struggle alongside. They are my friends and coliberators.
In his last speech to the Southern Leadership Council in 1967, Martin Luther King said that models of service were simply not enough. He said that we have to ask bigger questions about the whole society. “We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace,” said King. “But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said something similar in the midst of the Holocaust. “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice,” he said. “We are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” Restructuring an edifice that produce beggars. Driving a spoke into the wheel itself. What could these things things look like in Nashville?
The work of solidarity begins with relationships. It begins with closer proximity to those who are cast out, those who are struggling. This means that if we don’t know the poor, our first task is to learn their names and struggles, to go down to the rivers of despair and wade with our neighbors. We enter into their lives, not just in one-time ways, but in consistent and sustained ways. And then, we go upstream.
When we started this work of homeless outreach and organizing, we had little more to organize with than our own bodies and hearts. When Metro tried to close Tent City in 2008, we said we would put our bodies in front of the bulldozers, that we would get arrested alongside the residents. And while we still use that tactic if and when needed, we’ve gotten more savvy. We have a network of relationships throughout the community with attorneys, faith leaders, council members, researchers, the media, and other organizers and we work to change things from both the bottom up and the top down.
We change things from the bottom up by reminding our friends on the streets that they have rights, voices, and power. We host “Know Your Rights” workshops, encourage their leadership, and learn from their examples. We sit with them at their campfires plotting change and stoking the flames of their dreams.
And we change things from the top down by changing policy. Starting this Wednesday, an Encampment Task Force appointed by the Metro Homelessness Commission will begin meeting to come up with recommendations for the Mayor’s Office and Metro concerning Fort Negley and other campsites. The task force includes the head of Metro Parks, the central precinct commander, outreach workers, and other Metro employees, but most importantly, it includes people who are currently living in campsites.*
We’re also partnering with groups like NOAH (Nashville Organized for Action and Hope) and A Voice to restructure the local edifice that produces homelessness and displacement through changing housing policy. While this can be tedious and technical work, it is one of the only ways for immediate and concrete systemic change. We are working to secure more funding for the Barnes Housing Trust Fund which provides a dedicated source of funding for affordable housing. We’re advocating for a Community Land Trust that could help us preserve existing affordable units for decades to come. We’re working on Inclusionary Zoning which would mandate that new developments have a certain percentage of affordable units. And we’re looking at ways to rechannel Tax Increment Financing, a public funding tool that was used under Mayor Dean almost exclusively to fund high-end development projects, back to affordable housing.
We have seen change happen and we know it’s possible. So we’ll keep bending what Martin Luther King called “the moral arc of the universe” toward justice with every ounce of strength we can muster. This arc bends and the Beloved Community forms when we come together. No one can do this work alone. So I’m praying that we will have the courage to step outside the walls, outside our comfort zones, and swim in the waters of change. What is needed is not our comfort but our courage. What is needed is not our isolation, suspicion, and cynicism, but astounding love and grace lived out in the public sphere. So as we work toward this dream, let us cultivate a kind of fire here that no water can put out and nurture a kind of “dangerous unselfishness.” Let us fan the flames of hope and resistance and join the struggle with our friends in the camps, slums, and alleys of indifference. We’d love to have you on this journey with us.
*The first Encampment Task Force meeting will be next Wednesday, January 20th at 9:00am at Metro Social Services (800 2nd Ave. N.). There will be a meeting every Wednesday at 9:00am until March 2nd and these meetings are open to the public and will include public comment.