Tag Archives: nashville homeless

A Playground for the Rich, a Prison for the Poor

People Over ProfitIn order for injustice to exist, a large segment of the population must be misguided, unethical, apathetic, or asleep. Or they must be so beaten down that they forget the power that burns in their bellies, their bones.

For the last several years, a large segment of Nashvillians have watched silently as huge swaths of our city were bought by the highest bidder. The hunger for profit drives the market. Money flows from developers in L.A., New York, Atlanta. They know the drill, they know when and where to invest, how to fit through loopholes, move in the dead of night. And in Metro government, few, if any, checks and balances exist to ensure that the “rising tide lifts all boats.”

Nashville has given millions upon millions of tax breaks, tax incentives, and public money to high end development projects while thousands of affordable homes, duplexes, and apartments are bought out. The low income tenants are evicted, moved further out of sight, out of mind. The housing is razed or renovated, replaced by expensive condos, “tall and skinnies,” boutique hotels, or Airbnb units. Poverty rates climb. Food stamps are cut. Homeless camps are cleared. Anti-refugee and anti-LGBTQI+ legislation is passed. Police cameras go up in public housing projects.

1 arrest, Kyle LincolnAs political organizer and professor Sekou Franklin says, “Nashville is being built like a playground for the rich and a prison for the poor.” The message is clear: the new Nashville is for people with money in their pockets—the young, the privileged, the white, the rich. So instead of the “rising tide lifting all boats,” a few drift by in pricey yachts while our people are drowning. The progress Mayor Barry’s administration is making is throwing life preservers out, but real change, real equity, real justice, will take decisive leadership and bold actions from the Mayor’s Office and City Council. And it will take a critical mass of people who are awake and willing to hold our city leaders accountable.

Andrew KrinksFor too many years, we’ve watched silently, waiting for a tipping point, waiting for something to shake us out of our slumber. And then, for many of us, the buzz of bulldozers rang in our ears, jolting us awake. For many of us, that tipping point came when the Mayor’s Office announced that they would move forward with plans to evict the people camping in the woods at Fort Negley who had nowhere to go. So on April 15th, hundreds rallied, marched, camped out with the residents. Others in homeless camps across the city joined together with low-wage workers, people fighting for racial justice, students, faith leaders, and organizers. With open eyes, the feeling of love, of newly discovered collective power, blazed in their bones.

Sekou FranklinDuring Mayor Barry’s State of Metro Address on April 29th, this same group came together for a silent vigil, followed by “The People’s State of Metro” press conference.  The following reflection is the speech I shared during the press conference. The other speakers included Steve Hopper who lives in an encampment south of downtown, Neptali Perez with Workers’ Dignity, Rhiana Anthony with Black Lives Matter, Marie Campbell with Showing Up for Racial Justice, Sekou Franklin with Democracy Nashville, Dick Blin with Jobs with Justice, and Ingrid McIntyre with Open Table Nashville.

What happens next depends on all of us. “The revolution is not an apple that falls when it is ripe,” says Ernesto Che Guevera. “You have to make it fall.”

The People’s State of Metro SpeechApril 29th

Ballons with housing signHow many people here have struggled to find housing they can afford in Nashville over the last couple years? How many people would have to move if your rent doubled overnight? All of us on the bottom and in the middle are united in our struggle for safe, decent, affordable housing.

We came here today to ask a question – What does the “State of Metro” look like from below? For me, it looks like a homeless woman name Alyce freezing to death in her car. It looks like over 70 deaths in the homeless community last year. It looks like clearing homeless camps like Fort Negley when there’s not enough room in the inn. It looks like Section 8 waiting lists with over 14,000 people waiting…. waiting for a better life, waiting for a better future for their children, hoping and praying their name is called.

Yes, this is the State of Metro in 2016, the state of the city we love. It’s a playground for the rich and a prison – or graveyard – for the poor. But it doesn’t have to be like this.

People Over Profit signWe’re not here today to protest Mayor Barry, per se. We’re here to protest silence and apathy in the face of injustice. We’re here to protest the perpetual displacement of our people in camps, projects, and low-income housing. We’re here to protest the watered down, status-quo, business-as-usual politics that have given this city to wealthy developers and taken it out of our hands. This is a crisis. This is tipping point. People are waking up, coming together, demanding change, declaring that this city must start putting people over profit.


Stop Displacement Now, photo by John PartipiloThe banner that now hangs from the Pedestrian Bridge reads, “Stop Displacement Now!” These are our demands: End all the closures of campsites and low-income housing until we have sufficient alternatives. Come up with a strategic, comprehensive plan to create 20,000 units of low-income housing – the units we need to address this crisis.

So if you are listening now and find yourself one of the wealthy, one of the privileged, one of the decision makers, we ask you to join us. Use your privilege, your resources, your influence for social, economic, and racial justice.

If you are listening now and find yourself in the middle, we ask you to join us. Help us build bridges to those in power and to those on the bottom. Use your networks to mobilize more people into this crucial work.

And if you are here and find yourself on the bottom, we want to say we are with you. Stay strong. Your voice is most important in this struggle and you are not alone. We see your suffering, we see your strength. So keep raising your voice, keep telling your story, and keep coming together in solidarity. The future of our city depends on it.

March, Kyle 2


Holding someone’s hand through hell

radnor24I have been reading Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard and the opening lines still hang on my mind and my lips: “Every day is a god,” she writes, “I praise each day splintered down, splintered down and wrapped in time like a husk, a husk of many colors.” And in this season of Ordinary Time, I, too, praise the splintered days wrapped in time and dig into them deeply.

Last month, I was sitting on the banks of the Cumberland River in a quiet spot that no one knows about, a quiet spot where the sounds of the city merge with the sounds of the river and I can watch herons and cranes winging by. I was sitting on the banks and reading Holy the Firm when something caught my eye—it was the dead body of a robin bobbing at the water’s edge. The robin’s body was bloated and upturned and I couldn’t reach her because of the rocks. Each wave pounded her tiny body into the rocks, raking her lifeless wings this way and that. When the huge wake of a barge made it to my place on the shore, I held my breath. I thought the larger waves would rip her apart but they didn’t—they just rolled her, threw her, thrashed her about and I had to look away. The god of that day was harsh, exacting, merciless. Plants die, birds die, people die, yes, but can’t we have some dignity in the meantime?

Since then, there have been so many highs and lows in our work that it has left me spinning, rolling like the robin in the waves. We’ve had breakthroughs, wins, and move-ins, yes. But the losses, defeats, and hospitalizations have, like the wake of the barge, pummeled my body and heart. If this last week was a god, it was a softer god of tired, puffy eyes and splintered hope.

ezekiel iconAlong with Holy the Firm, I have been reading through the book of Ezekiel because I never have, because I, too, have see fire and suffering and visions. The god of those days was also harsh and exacting and I want to look away. I don’t want to read how the God of Israel was willing to scatter people’s bones, to give them up to famine and pestilence, to sword and decay. Men, women, and children—feel the wrath of God pounding and thrashing your bodies on rocks! How can I believe that anyone deserves this? I am only a dozen chapters in, but I had to stop, had to breathe, had to look around at the plants and trees to remember—to re-member—a God who loves and heals and puts the pieces back together. This will come later in Ezekiel, I know, but for now, this is what I have to hold, to wrestle with, and no easy answers can make sense of it for me. “Luke,” one of the men at a local encampment who has suffered tremendously recently told me, “I don’t believe in hell. If there is one, we’re living in it now.” So I sit with these things.

Of the people I’m working with, four have relapsed in recent weeks. They tried to hold on, but the disease was too powerful and the streets are toxic—grounds for a losing battle. Without housing, without hope, they gave in to the pull of the drink and it raked their bodies, pounding them on rocks, leaving them sick and miserable. Addictions and relapses like these are devastatingly complex. “I drink to cover up the pain,” said one. “I drink and pass out and that’s when I don’t feel it anymore, that’s the only time I can escape.” Another said, “I drink cause I’m going through hell. I’m in hell right now.” I visit them in the back alleys, the camps, the parks, “the beehive,” and bring them water, tend their wounds, listen to their despair, and talk about life, about housing, about treatment, about hope. I went to a training on Trauma-Informed Care last week and the trainer, Matt Bennett, asked, “When we are holding someone’s hand through hell, where does that put us?”

ezekiel and the scrollAfter Ezekiel saw the vision of the wheel in the sky, God gave him a scroll of lamentation and mourning and woe and told him to eat it. He ate the scroll and it filled his belly. It is said that the scroll tasted sweet like honey and I don’t know what to do with that. I’ve sat with the passage for weeks and I still don’t know what to do with it. Here we are the week after Pentecost with newness exploding all around us and we hold the scrolls of woe and wonder what in the world to do with them. Take the suffering into our bodies? Chew it, taste it, have it become part of the fabric of our being? And why honey?

Sometimes I sit and stare at my herb garden that is now in full bloom—lavender, hyssop, basil, thyme, feverfew, oregano, mint, sage, curry, echinacea, patchouli, and lemon balm (though I can’t grow cilantro to save my life). I stare at the herbs and the trees above them and I recite the names and places where people are bought and sold and bloodied, where people are thrashed on rocks, where their bones are scattered. The psych ward. 5th and Main. Riverbend. Palestine. Nigeria. Ukraine. I remember—re-member—them as best I can, both distant and near, and carry them in the soft stinging shell of my heart. And this is my prayer.

bird

As I sit with these questions and prayers, as I sit with the thought of so many living in hell on earth, as I sit with the trauma and suffering and loss, I feel a seed of something else stretching inside me, I see it taking root and blooming around me. The other week, amid the hospitalizations and relapses, a family of seven I’ve worked with since last October finally moved into permanent housing and were beside themselves with joy. There was the Saturday spent with friends and a sweet baby mockingbird that perched on my shoulder, and then we saw Luke come back to life after entering an intensive outpatient treatment program. Luke is living with one of our friends and has started volunteering with us. He’s reading Dorothy Day, learning about people like Oscar Romero and Desmond Tutu, and is realizing that he is most fully alive when he is helping others. “I hope you have a lot of water, because I’m on fire,” he said. “Fan the flames,” I told him, “and learn to channel them.”

Nearly a month into his sobriety, Luke sent me a note. He sent me a note and when I read it, I cried. It said, “Thank you for letting me be a part of all of your lives. Thank you for taking me in for shelter. For allowing me to flourish. For showing forgiveness, grace and patience. Thank you for offering me more of a life than I could have ever expected to receive again. For wanting to wake up to the very best I have inside of me and craving the chance to give it away to someone in need. Someone lost, alone, afraid. I’ve known that all too well my whole life and at this very moment I can only recall those clouds, rain and turbulence as a passing storm from some distant dream. As if it’s all been washed away. Thank you all for loving me, when I could not love myself. Caring, when I couldn’t anymore. Giving when all I could do was take. Today, I want to give what was so freely given to me. My gratitude overwhelms me at times. But here I stand. Solid, Strong, and Willing to give of myself, expecting nothing in return but to know that on this day, and because of this family… this community… because of very amazing people like you, I have something special and genuine to offer. Something worth living for.”

Arabic_herbal_medicine_guidebook

If hell is on earth, then heaven begins here, too. Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to heaven or the kingdom of God as “the beloved community” and this resonates with me in a way that mansions and streets of gold never will. So yes. Even in the midst of hell, the beloved community is blooming around us. Like a horizon, it is under our very feet yet always beyond us. It is a community that re-members that God is, by nature, Love, and that love wades into the crashing waves with us, that love seeks to heal, to show mercy, and to bind the broken, thrashed, and tattered things back together. This love, as Luke so poignantly described, is one that washes away the shame and guilt, that welcomes and accepts us where we are, that awakens something deep in our souls, and that helps us to find life and meaning and one another.

The Psalm for the other day was Psalm 66 and verse 12 still lingers on my mind and my lips, as well: “We went through fire and through water,” says the psalmist, “yet you have brought us out to a place that overflows.” If today is a god, it is a god who loves fully, who awakens those who slumber, who pours breath back into the slain, and who can even cause suffering and woe to sometimes, somehow, lose their bitterness and taste like honey on our lips.


Of Paralytics and Stretcher-Bearers, of Death and Hope

elijahSeveral mornings ago, I awoke to a faint dusting of snow. The air danced with specks of white fire, tiny fragments lit from early light emerging from the dense veil of winter clouds. I got ready in a daze, my mind brimming with all the people I forgot to call, all the emails I forgot to send. On the way to our staff meeting, something dark up ahead caught the corner of my eye. At first, it looked like a grouping of crows, but as I drove closer, I realized it was six to seven large, midnight-black turkey vultures crowding over some dead, frozen casualty. My car must have gotten within a foot or two of the carcass as I passed, but they didn’t flinch. Two hulked above the others on a fence glancing downward and the macabre feast continued. I shuddered at the thought of such terribly large birds silently feeding on death.

Last week, I dreamt that I was in some sort of cave. The lighting was dim and there was a fire burning near the center. In my dream, I was surrounded by dead bodies—40 or more—and my job was to anoint them. Not save them, not bury them… to anoint them. I remember feeling grave about this task, but doing it with intention and feeling some strange sense of meaning, like the task was one that needed to be done and done well.

When Samuel and I went to pick people up for the warming shelter the other night, it was late, already dark, and we only had 10 spots. A local musician was opening his home to our friends, even though the temperature was a little above 25 degrees (on colder nights, we have over 150 spots). My task was to choose and pick up the 10 people. I made calls and sought out the most vulnerable. We arrived to the sight of canes and hospital bracelets, but “Kentucky’s” wheelchair was nowhere in sight. We found him nearby at the Citgo with “Chris” and “Jerry” (who were both a little more sober than usual). They both knew they couldn’t come in with us because of the lack of space, but they were determined to make sure Kentucky got in the van.

"This one is for the riders" found beneath a train trestle in Nashville, 2014 Kentucky hasn’t been able to walk for some time and can barely move. He gets a disability check, but hasn’t been able to access subsidized housing because he has a warrant out for his arrest in Mississippi. Kentucky used to hop trains and travel around the country. When he was passing through Mississippi, he said he once went for four days without food or water in a train car. “Hunger makes you do strange things,” he said. As the train neared a small town and slowed, he began passing fast food restaurants—Burger King, Wendy’s, McDonalds—but he had no money for food. Tired and half-starved he got off the train and went into a convenience store and stole a package of baloney. They caught him and he left town before he could be booked. And he now has a warrant out for his arrest.

Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of El Salvador who was assassinated in 1980, once said that we are called upon to be “stretcher-bearers” in this world. He was drawing from the story in Mark of the paralytic man who was raised up to the roof of a house and then lowered down to by Robert LentzJesus to be healed. Romero was saying that yes, God still works to mend our wounds and heal the brokenness of our wayward, capitalistic society that feeds, like a vulture, on the “the disposables,” but that we are called to be the hands and feet that bring those broken, wounded, wayward things forward.

When I saw Chris and Jerry in front of the Citgo, straining with all of their might to pull Kentucky out of his wheelchair and raise him up into the van so he could get out of the cold, all I could think about was this story of the paralytic. And I wonder what the friends of the paralytic were like in the story. Surely they were resourceful, determined, willing to break the rules, willing to piss a few people off. I can’t imagine what kind of an operation it took to raise and lower their friend. I wonder if there were moments they thought they might not make it. If they were truly the paralytic’s friends, I wonder if they, too, were outcasts. I wonder if they, too, smelled of urine and filth. I wonder about how their lives were changed after that day, about the stories they told that evening. I wonder if they laughed among themselves when they thought about the shock and dismay on the faces of the scribes and those in the crowd when bits of roof fell in on them as they dug through and as Jesus showed them grace. I wonder what that day meant for their lives moving forward.

paralyticAnd I wonder what kind of healing Chris, Jerry, and Kentucky seek. At this point, they have all saved each other’s lives several times over. At any given time, at least one of them is sober enough to take care of the others. But what kind of healing do they seek? I heard last night that Kentucky’s feet were so frost-bitten that the doctors wanted to amputate them. And there is something deep in Chris and Jerry’s eyes (especially Jerry’s) that is so tender, so gentle.

The other night, after most people were settled into the emergency shelters, I took the church van out with our intern, Corley, and we drove around East Nashville looking for those guys. We couldn’t find them anywhere so we headed to the MTA bus terminal to check the benches and warming rooms for people who needed to come in. As soon as we walked in, I saw a wheelchair and realized it was Jerry and Kentucky. They were trying to get someone to give them a ride to a shelter but had no bus fare. They were beyond glad to see us, they almost cried. After we checked the other areas, we turned to the task of getting Kentucky from his wheelchair into the van. It took 10 minutes, at least, maybe more, but Jerry got him in.

Jerry is a 38-year old country boy born and raised in Nashville with black and gray speckled hair and a speckled beard. He looks much older than his years and has soft, sky-blue eyes. As we were driving down to check Broadway and 2nd Ave., Jerry said, “Miss Lindsey, you know I love this man. I’ve done things for him I never thought I’d do… things I couldn’t imagine.” He described how he has been one of Kentucky’s care takers and has helped him with everything—eating, clothing, bathing, going to the bathroom… As he talked, his eyes filled with sadness and disbelief. “We’ve got to get him off these streets,” he said.

Yes, we are stretcher-bearers, Jerry is a stretcher-bearer. We sometimes share the filth and sickness of others. We tend to each other’s wounds, search for healing, and push each other forward. We walk alongside those who are beyond help and anoint the dead with oil. We work daily to comfort the afflicted and break the yokes of oppression. We pass those who prey and profit off the casualties crushed by a system of war and greed, and with every ounce of hope we can muster, we cling to the faith that a better world is possible. But what kind of healing do we seek?

Jesus said to the paralytic, “I have seen your faith, pick up your mat and walk.” And with Chris, with Jerry, with Kentucky, with Romero, I cling to the hope that our people will somehow get up and walk.


Deep Emptiness and Fullness: A Typical Day

Ken, by Betsy NeelyIt is a cool, dreary morning, the first morning I’ve had off in a couple of weeks. It is a morning where the leaves are beginning to change and drift to the earth, a morning of Sabbath and reflection, a morning where I wonder how it is possible to feel so full and so empty at the same time.

Yesterday, someone asked what a typical day looks like for me. Here are glimpses of the last couple weeks, I told them: Holding the hand of a house-less veteran who was surrounded only by outreach workers when his life support was removed. Holding up our friend in the slums and praying with him as his wife’s body was placed into the hearse. Visiting a house-less 28-year old in the hospital who opened up for the first time about the voices he had secretly heard for years—voices he desperately wanted to stop. Taking two groups of students from Lipscomb and Emory around the streets and reading Scripture at the library park, the steps of downtown churches, the civil rights room, the courthouse, and the capitol. Leading a prayer during a vigil for fair wages for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers who have faced tremendous exploitation, yet still have courage and hope. Washing the feet of a man who wept CIW prayer vigilbecause he realized, for the first time in a long time, that he was not alone. Seeing the joy of a woman—traumatized, abused, and weary—as she moved into the safety of her own apartment. Finding an old friend on a bridge and sitting with him until the waves of despair, hopelessness, and suicidal feelings subsided. Working with a family of seven living together in their tiny car with all their worldly possessions and a small rescued dog.

Yes, how it is possible to feel so full and so empty at the same time?

This work is as demanding as it is rewarding, as humbling as it is haunting. There is always more to do than can be done, there are always more people in need than can be helped, there are always more calls and emails than can be answered. Sometimes, the only thing I have to give is my presence, my love, and my own vulnerability. “It is the crushed heart which is the soft heart, the tender heart,” a Carmelite nun once said.

And so, on mornings like this, I find solace in the hands that were held, the feet that were washed, the people who were housed, the students who were impacted, and the workers who have hope. I find solace in the friends at my side who remind me that none of us can do this work alone. I find solace in a God who moves among the broken and troubles the waters. And I find solace in the writings of Dorothy Day—a woman who knew the “long loneliness” of working for justice in the midst of a system that dehumanizes and degrades. In June of 1945 during a difficult time, Day penned these words:

dorothy day 1“What we would like to do is to change the world—make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves as God intended them to do. And to a certain extent, by fighting for better conditions, by crying out unceasingly for the rights of the workers, of the poor, of the destitute—the rights of the worthy and unworthy poor, in other words—we can to a certain extent change the world; we can work for the oasis, the little cell of joy and peace in a harried world. We can throw our pebble into the pond and be confident that its ever-widening circle will reach around the world. We repeat, there is nothing that we can do but love, and dear God—please enlarge our hearts to love each other, to love our neighbor, to love our enemy as well as our friend.”

Amen. Let us go in love, in emptiness, and in fullness.