On a Wednesday evening in September, as the cooler temperatures washed over Nashville and rain began to fall, roughly 50 people gathered inside Green Street Church of Christ. Scattered throughout the pews were members of the community, many of whom spend their nights on the streets. Far from a traditional Church of Christ feel, the evening began with a song and dance from the youth members, followed by music from the four-man band, continued with scripture readings and concluded with a word from one of the rotating pastors. During the 45-minute service, a few churchgoers drifted off in corner pews, others rejoiced in the name of the Lord, most simply feeling blessed to be in the warmth of a building, and all looked forward to the free meal provided after the service.
Although Raphael McPherson was not in attendance at the service, he has spent many Wednesday evenings inside the church taking advantage of the free dinner, and he has even spent a few nights in the basement hallway when the cold air on the streets was unbearable. Three years before the flood hit Nashville back in May 2010, Raphael was living in Tent City and made his way to Green Street on Sundays and Wednesdays, the days the church provides free meals to the community. Now this is the place he calls home. I met Raphael in the basement of Green Street, just a few steps from where he spent winter nights and a few more from where he now resides, in a microhome in Green Street Church of Christ’s backyard. This handsome, well-dressed man of strong build is wearing a crisp, black shirt with a pink breast cancer awareness ribbon pinned over the left side of his chest. He shared that he had returned from work a moment ago, but opted not to provide his place of employment—and I did not ask.
Homelessness is an issue that is symptomatic of larger problems, including medical issues, legal troubles, mental illness, unemployment and ineligibility for affordable housing. All of these struggles, coupled with the lack of a support system and services, forces many to surrender to life on the street. Raphael began battling homelessness in 2000, and his plight began with legal troubles. “My time on the streets … I have slept under bridges, in arctic weather; I slept in Tent City; I did not fare well with The Mission; I have been to Room in the Inn a couple times; I have had people that I know who have died on the streets,” he shares.
As 13.57 inches of rain fell in Nashville over 36 hours during the historic floods in 2010, many people lost their lives and their homes. For the residents of Tent City, the place they called home was labeled a biohazardous area, and like many Nashvillians, they were displaced. Many found reprieve from the rain in temporary shelters and housing options. With the help of FEMA money, Raphael moved into an apartment, which he had to give up after less than a year. Raphael attributes his inability to maintain his housing to the economy’s upheaval and his struggle to find work as a day laborer. Homeless again and living off unemployment, Raphael spent nights in nonpermanent housing, such as Hobson House and Rex Court, but once these funds ran out, he made his way to Green Street Church last May. “I knew they had been running the outside camp for awhile; I knew about it through my associates. They made me go through the interview process. I had some recommendations, and I knew most of the ministry here, and they let me in. Fortunately, right after I got here, I found a job,” he explains.
Green Street and the Microhomes
While churchgoers fill the pews for Sunday service, Wednesday nights draw the biggest crowds. On these nights, the community is invited to worship and enjoy a free, hot meal. Each week, a different church or organization provides the food, whether it be burritos, barbecue or anything in between. Green Street Church of Christ was founded in the 19th century, and for the past 15 years, has continued its mission to provide services, shelter and food to the homeless community. The church has an all-pervading sense of giving back. In 2012, the church extended its giving beyond free meals, when the elders and deacons turned their heads to the tents that began to pepper their yard.
Skirting any legality of city zoning ordinances, Green Street Church allowed a group of homeless men to pitch tents on the church’s property. When it became obvious the encampment, now named The Sanctuary, was not going to stay imperceptible, property owners in the area began to pressure the city to take action. The Metro Department of Codes and Building Safety cited Green Street Church with code violations, and William “Tripp” Hunt, an attorney who represents many homeless individuals and was the acting attorney for Occupy Nashville, stepped in to provide legal representation for the church. On the grounds of Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, Green Street has continued to carry out its mission of serving the religious needs of its members.
The encampment started almost four years ago, and recently has grown to include microhomes (6’x10′ houses with linoleum floors, drywall, one Murphy bed, one window, a door and wiring for electricity). These homes were a project kickstarted by Reverend Jeff Carr of Infinity Fellowship, and with the help of his lifelong friend, Rev. Dwayne A. Jones, an idea that struck the duo during a mission trip to Haiti after the earthquake in 2010 became a reality. Driving home one night, scouting for a space for his fellowship, Jeff stumbled upon Green Street Church and The Sanctuary, which he saw as an ideal spot to house the microhomes. He equates this meeting not to happenstance but to divine intervention.
The idea grew legs during the holidays in 2014, when Infinity Fellowship was only a few months old and its community was growing. But the idea truly took off this past spring, when, in an effort to raise funds for the microhome project, dubbed Infinity Village, Jeff started a gofundme crowdfunding campaign. In order to gain momentum and awareness of the project, Jeff, who stands 6’2,” moved into a model microhome on Father’s Day 2015, where he committed to stay until he reached the funding goal of $50,000. He reached that goal 45 days later.
For Jeff, the homes needed to resemble something that, if he found himself in that situation, he would be happy to call home. And although his temporary, tiny home was vastly different from the chaos and commotion he experiences on a daily basis with his five children, he was comfortable there. “I am proud of the standard building construction. It is a solid structure,” he explains. Jeff faced daily struggles many members of the homeless community are accustomed to: where was his next meal coming from, where was he going to use the restroom, how was he going to get power for his laptop. But many things he did not have to ask himself (such as: where am I going to stash my stuff when I work? How am I going to feed my family? How am I going to fill out paperwork for permanent housing? How am I going to avoid arrest charges?). Jeff experienced homelessness himself in 2008, a time during which he was married with three children and one on the way. Fortunately, for him, his mother-in-law acted as a safety net. Meaning, he ended up in her attic, not on the streets. While this created anxiety for Jeff, it also gave him a lesson in humility, one he has carried with him through the creation of Infinity Village.
Once construction of the homes was complete, they were transferred to The Sanctuary. Jeff donated the structures, with no strings—or responsibility—attached. Now in the hands of Green Street, names of all current Sanctuary tenants were placed in a hat and a youth member of the congregation drew names during the weekly service. At the time, there were about 20 people living in the encampment, but some opted out of a home. The name of one of the two severely mentally disabled members of the community was drawn, but he turned down the home. Caleb Pickering, a deacon at Green Street Church, believes he might have experienced a house fire at a younger age, but is not willing to speak for the decisions of those who remained in the tents by choice. Raphael was working when his name was drawn. The news shared with him upon his return was anticlimactic. “We didn’t make a big deal about it,” Caleb chimes in.
Ending the Cycle for the Homeless in Nashville
In 2014, The Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development reported that the Nashville homeless population was 2,301. This number was the result of an annual Point-in-Time Count conducted at the end of January 2014, which utilized volunteers who scan the streets of Nashville for an outdoor count and collect data from local shelters during the same night, so it is unlikely this accounts for everyone who is homeless. With about 280 encampments in Nashville and a multitude of people sleeping on friends’ couches and in hotel rooms, Ingrid McIntyre, founder and executive director of Open Table Nashville, believes the number to be closer to 7,000 (with 3,000 of those being children).
How’s Nashville, a movement launched by the Metropolitan Homeless Commission, strives to bring an end to chronic homelessness, as well as veteran homelessness, by collecting data, tracking progress and improving the local systems that support the homeless population. Additionally, they are striving to finding a permanent housing solution for 2,016 homeless Nashvillians by 2016, starting with those who are believed to be the most vulnerable and face the greatest risk of death on the streets. The organization has seen successes and has housed roughly 45 people a month since June, but they have reached a roadblock: the market is saturated. Ingrid believes 800 Section 8 vouchers, which have been distributed to family units in Davidson County, are not currently in use due to the lack of viable housing options. Many see lack of affordable housing as the cornerstone of chronic homelessness. “We want to disrupt cycles of poverty. Find the root cause. Housing ends homelessness. Put that in your article,” Ingrid passionately tells me.
Are microhomes a solution to end the cycle of homelessness? Ingrid does not see it as the answer, but as a viable surrogate option. “The answer is permanent housing with supportive services,” she tells me. “Encampments and bridge housing is not the answer. But until we get to the point where affordable, sustainable housing is available, we need an alternative option.” In fact, Open Table Nashville has a project rendering to provide 18 tiny houses (stay tuned for more information on this). Bridge housing provides people with an opportunity to be part of a supportive community and to alleviate the need to be in survival mode at all times. With roofs over their heads, these people can switch their focus to finding permanent housing. The process to find affordable housing can be tedious and exhausting. The system is difficult to navigate, and even once vouchers are granted, the process is not over.
With a place Raphael can go, where weather is not his immediate concern, he finds he can concentrate better on the things he needs to do. “I go to Centerstone because I have Bipolar Dyslexic Disorder. In my house, I can pull the Bible out and read. That helps me mentally, and when I don’t have those worries, I get along better with everyone else and set goals that I see myself accomplishing.” Raphael asserts he is making a concerted effort to find permanent housing. His current goals include: find more permanent housing, spend more time with his son and eventually get transportation again. “I ride a bike and take the bus. I am 52, I cannot do this too much longer,” he says with a laugh.
Caleb avoids the phrase “permanent” and sees the microhomes as a step towards something better. “We have seen successes, but have also seen failures. Many do well and move on. Sometimes, they do so well that when they move off they regress, which is disappointing.”
Raphael expresses his desire to move toward something better: “Microhomes are, from my understanding, a transitional thing. Your next plan is go out and find permanent housing … some people out here just want to be homeless. They like the feeling of being free and not answering to anybody. I have been an advocate of other homeless people that are trying to do better … most people here are progressive, in that they want to do something better than just be homeless. They are trying. The church has given us a vehicle and a means …. they encourage us to help ourselves, to have faith in God and set out and help yourself do better and don’t depend on others. I don’t want to be the type of person that I am always waiting on somebody to give me something. I like the feeling of being able to go out and work and have money. And have pride that I am doing something. This is not a stagnant community. We want society to know most homeless people are not the status quo of ‘lazy people.’ Green Street provided their resources and land. It is great to talk about stuff. It is great that we have dialogue, but when are we actually going to do something?
“We are happy here,” Raphael continues. “Spiritually, our needs are taken care of, we are not hungry and we are looking forward. We have hope. When you have hope that is basically … just having hope is something to live for.”
As the congregation moved from the chapel to the room where dinner was being served, a group of men behind me discussed where they would be resting their heads that night:
Man 1: “Hey, where are you planning to sleep tonight?”
Man 2. “Man, I don’t know. I have been working so many shifts, I haven’t slept in days.”
Their conversation blended in with the discussions around them, and I was left wondering the answer to the first man’s question. Although Raphael McPherson has asked himself the question of where he was going to spend the night many times since he first began battling homelessness in 2000, tonight this would be one thing that did not occupy his mind because he is a proud tenant of one of the microhomes. It is the dream of not only Ingrid and Caleb, but many others, to remove this question from the lives of 7,000 men, women and children in Nashville.
A recent Vanderbilt Study clearly addresses the need to look forward: “Addressing affordability is imperative to preserving and improving overall quality of life, while keeping Nashville competitive for economic growth. Without concrete tools to ensure affordable housing choices throughout all neighborhoods, the city will continue to experience economic segregation and more households will face a staggering cost burden, displacement and exclusion.”
Caleb, like many others, remains optimistically realistic about the issue of homelessness and the move toward affordable housing. “You let yourself think that you could turn some heads, but that has never been the goal,” he shares. “You get used and abused, and at some point in the process, you learn how to keep doing it without giving up. Where we are today, it just happened. The first decision was just letting one person stay in a tent, then a series of small decisions after that led to this.”
One thing Ingrid was sure to remind me of–and something that CNN’s Anderson Cooper underscores in this “60 Minutes” segment on Nashville homelessness—is that everyone has a story; people have names. People are living on the margins, but we can find a way for everyone to thrive, regardless of the breadth of their financial resources.
For those looking for where to turn in Nashville, Open Table Nashville, in partnership with The Contributor, provides a comprehensive resource guide for advocates and their friends experiencing homelessness.. If you are looking for ways to donate, check online or email [email protected]. Open Table provides household items for people who get into housing, and they also accept items (coats, sleeping bags, gloves, tents, tarps and hand warmers) for their friends who are still homeless in Nashville. Ingrid is not afraid to be heard. “Someone else’s humanity is greater than the fear of action,” she shares.