Features  As for me and my tent

Niko Block travels to Nashville, TN to witness life in Tent City, a shanty town that attests to the drastic rise in homelessness in the States

Beyond the crash in the stock market, staggering rates of household debt, and a steep downturn in commodity prices, the current recession in the U.S. has seen the rise of another ominous throwback to the Great Depression: shanty towns.

The homeless have always sought refuge in the inconspicuous margins of the urban landscape, but in the wake of skyrocketing foreclosures and layoffs, their numbers have jumped to levels that urban nooks and hideouts can no longer accommodate, and open-air encampments have become the only option for thousands of Americans who have lost their homes and their savings in the recent market chaos.

I became immersed in the issue after watching footage taken on shaky handycams of homeless Floridians having their tents demolished by local police, and post-foreclosure Californians cooking over fires on the outskirts of Los Angeles. I decided to investigate the homeless situation in Nashville, Tennessee, which was the closest city I could find with a major tent community.

Nashville is among the dozens of American cities that has apathetically watched encampments flickering in and out of existence for generations. Several of them have been demolished over the years, only to spring up in different, more obscure locations. Having existed for over 20 years, Tent City, on the banks of the Cumberland River, has been the most enduring of them.

Last summer the municipal government decided that Tent City would be gone by the end of November, but the plan to demolish the encampment had to be cancelled after a massive campaign organised by a number of church and student groups rallied to Tent City’s defence. The mayor’s office postponed the demolition to June 1, and set up the Metropolitan Homeless Commission, which has conducted a series of public hearings on how the broader Nashville community thinks that the city should approach the housing issue.

The day I left for Tennessee, Barack Obama announced his Homeowner Affordability and Stability Plan. The initiative will primarily funnel money into Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac, but it is also designed to preclude foreclosures by helping struggling homeowners to refinance their mortgages at more affordable rates. A similar plan, called the Great Save program, was offered to 2,000 of the state’s residents by Tennessee’s governor, Phil Bredesen, last fall. But with over 44,000 foreclosures last year, up 70 per cent from 2007, Tennessee’s swelling lower-middle class has good reason to believe that the Save may not be all that great.

Opposition to demolishing Tent City at the Homeless Commission’s fourth and last public hearing was almost unanimous. The audience consisted of roughly two dozen churchgoers, outreach workers, and homeless people. About half as many municipal administrators, including Nashville’s Homeless Services Coordinator Clifton Harris, sat behind a table across from the microphone.

“We don’t want people being moved from the next location to the next location to the next location because the problem does not get resolved that way,” Harris later told me over the phone. “But tent cities are not the solution to ending chronic homelessness. At best, they’re a temporary fix to getting people off the street.”

In addition to the opinions expressed at the public hearings, Harris said that the commission’s recommendations to the mayor would be influenced by their observations of other cities, like Reno and Seattle, which are experimenting with integration and regulation of their tent communities.

“We’ve looked at costs, in terms of safety and public health, because they are communities – though they may be unusual communities to most people. For now, they still need to have access to emergency management and to police,” Harris said.

But he acknowledged that the commission’s findings would have no bearing on the demolition of Tent City, and told me that the encampment will be gone once the 40-or-so people living there find accommodation, or by June 1, whichever comes first.

At the hearing, Harris sat next to the chair of the commission, a straight-talking woman named Luvenia Butler, who answered the occasional question and asked people to please state their names before they spoke. Sitting in front of me was a belligerent old man with a scraggly grey-blond beard and an army backpack, who occasionally interrupted the proceedings by saying things like, “You people don’t give a damn about the homeless.”

Butler eventually turned on him and said, “Excuse me, sir, do you have something to say?”

“Yes, ma’am, I got a lot to say.”

“Well then, why don’t you say it at the microphone.”

He got up and took the microphone.

“Please state your name,” she said.

“Jim Johnson,” he said. “Now, I don’t even know why you’re all here. It’s already been cut and dry what you all are gonna do. We all know that. You’re going to shut it down and run the people off like stray dogs. The problem is you’re not sure where you’re going to send them people.”

The panel looked at him with expressions of disinterest and exasperation.

“But these people ain’t got nowhere to go,” he said. “We need to have a voice. We need to be part of the solution.”

The next morning I went downtown to meet Jeanie Alexander, an outreach worker at a homeless relief organisation called Park Center, whose SUV was decorated with multiple bumper stickers that said things like, “War is not the answer” and, “Stop factory farming.” As we stocked cardboard boxes full of canned food in the centre’s storage room, she told me that she had worked as an attorney until last year, when she decided to dedicate more of her time to homeless outreach and advocacy.

Every social worker that I talked to told me that the ranks of the homeless in Nashville have exploded in the past year. One woman, who runs a soup kitchen a few blocks away from the recording studios and honky-tonks of downtown Nashville, told me that she’s seen the number of people showing up for free meals double in the past six months. And the director of another soup kitchen in the more derelict neighbourhood of East Nashville said that more and more whole families, children and grandparents included, have been coming in lately.

“It’s like there’s a war going on in Nashville that you wouldn’t know about unless you’re in it,” said Alexander. “And I expect things will probably get worse in the near future. I don’t know how it’ll go for Park Center; we’re already pretty under-funded.”

We drove to Tent City. On the other side of a barbed wire fence that lined the lot Alexander had parked in was a stout man wearing a toque, work gloves, and a dirty T-shirt, who introduced himself as Papa Smurf. I lifted the box of food over the fence to him. He had a friendly demeanour, and once Alexander and I had walked from the lot to the far end of the encampment, he introduced me to his wife, Mother Theresa, and welcomed us into his tent. It was constructed of a large blue tarp suspended about ten feet above the ground, with four smaller tents along the edge. A semicircle of lawn chairs surrounded an oil-drum woodstove, and the floor had been carpeted with gravel.

“I got [the gravel] from the train tracks,” Papa Smurf said. “Took me 25 trips.”

Papa Smurf originally hails from New York state, where he worked for several years as a carpenter. He and Theresa moved to Tennessee about two years ago looking for work, but jobs have been sparse since the construction bubble burst in 2006. Without any source of unemployment insurance, temporary agencies have been Papa Smurf’s best bet, though employment opportunities there have been low-paying and irregular.

“A lot of temp agencies have closed recently, so it makes it harder for the ones that are still there. Most of the time you’ll be sitting in a chair all day, and if you do get out the door, you’re stuck in a position where after child support, taxes – and you still gotta pay $7 to get back and forth to your job site – you’re left with about $20 a day.” He finished rolling a cigarette and lit it.

I asked if he was optimistic that the broader Nashville community would be able to forestall the demolition again come June. Not really, he said.

“We’ve got a few months left here and that’s it. So I’m hoping by then we’ll have enough money saved up that we can buy a place, maybe get a piece of land and build my own home.… But I’ll miss this place ‘cause I like it here and it’s been home for two years now.”

Before she married Papa Smurf, Theresa had been a social worker in Fyffe, Alabama. “The nation’s capital of incest and meth addiction,” she told me. “It was tough work. I’m glad to be out of there in some ways, even though I’ve got no job here in Nashville.”

Theresa was extremely fast-talking and amiable, and made jokes about homelessness at every possible opportunity. We were talking about the church groups that occasionally visit Tent City to dole out sandwiches when she picked up a plastic rifle sitting next to her and said, “We could hunt our meals if we had to. I’ll bet I could get five squirrels in an afternoon. Tomorrow we’ll be eating rodent stew, just you wait.” She put the rifle down. “I’ve got to get some BBs for that thing,” she chuckled, taking a sip of coffee from a mug that said, “Freedom is Not Free.”

In spite of its reputation as a bastion of lawlessness, drug addiction, and violence, Tent City is a reasonably safe place to live – certainly more so than the streets. Its residents frequently mentioned that illegal drugs were virtually never brought into the camp and that the community fosters a strong sense of mutual support. Conditions there have improved since last summer, when outreach workers installed a source of drinkable water, a dumpster, and port-o-johns. Finding a place to shower is still difficult, especially in the winter, and poor hygiene is one of the factors that the city has cited as justification for closing the camp.

After leaving Papa Smurf’s tent, I talked to a 45-year-old man named Kevin, who had only been living in Tent City for a month, and had recently finished a two-year prison sentence for a DUI. He said that he had never seen such bleak prospects on the job market.

“I worked through the last recession. I had to work for a little less money, but I was working. This time it’s just not like that…. When I started working with the temporary services I always had a job, I was always able to get a room. But when I got out of prison this time it was something totally different. These temporary services aren’t doing anything; there’s just no work to get. And here I am caught up in this stuff, and this is not – ” he trailed off.

“Not your scene,” I said.

“No,” he laughed. “This is not my scene.”

Few of the residents of Tent City have attended the public hearings, and most of those whom I talked to, including Kevin and Papa Smurf, echoed Jim Johnson’s sentiment that the Homeless Commission is basically a whitewash. But many of them have also shied away from political activism because they have no intention of remaining in Tent City permanently.

A few days later I met up with another outreach worker named Steve Samra, who writes a blog about homelessness called Stone Soup Station. He brought me to the site where a smaller encampment had been demolished earlier in the week. Somebody had apparently moved back already, and his or her sleeping bag and a box of Corn Pops were lying not far from where the fire pit had been.

“This was a great camp,” said Samra.

About 15 people had lived there since last August. But drunken rows were chronically reported, and after the owner of a nearby auto body shop complained about the noise to the municipality, local authorities moved in and confiscated their tents and other belongings.

“If the government can’t provide affordable housing, and doesn’t have any drug or alcohol treatment available, but instead has shifted the bulk of its funding to law enforcement, then this is what’s going to happen,” said Samra. “Our prisons are the biggest homeless shelters in the world; so they’re spending pounds for the cure when they should be funnelling money into the ounces of prevention.”

Neither Samra nor anybody in Tent City is optimistic that the municipality will be able to relocate the entire community into affordable housing within the remaining two months before June, when the camp is slated to be demolished. Tent communities need to be recognized as the most viable short-term response to the spike in homelessness, he said. But if what little the homeless community has is denied them, a rise in crime and civil unrest is a near certainty.

“A man or a woman has got to survive, and if you keep pushing their backs up against the wall, one of two things is going to happen: you’re either going to kill them or they’re going to start fighting back. There’s this tension right now in this country that being walked over, being neglected, being overlooked – people are fucking done with that. I think we’ll probably give Obama eight years, but if we don’t see substantial change by then, having a revolution in this country would not surprise me. I think the conditions are pretty ripe.”

CKUT Audio:

To hear Nico Block’s audio documentary on Nashville’s Tent City, check out The Daily’s Multimedia Blog at mcgilldaily.com. The report will also air on Tuesday, March 24 between 5 and 6 PM on CKUT 90.3 FM and will stream live at ckut.ca.