The problem of homelessness knows no age, sex, race, religion or national boundaries, in fact it is a problem that countries around the world, developed and undeveloped, have dealt with for centuries.
In 2011, there were an estimated 4,000 homeless individuals, some of whom are children, on the streets of Nashville on any given night. According to the Park Center's Homeless Outreach, 45 percent of those who are homeless suffer from mental illness. Each year, approximately 30 members of Nashville's homeless community die on the street, often times alone.
The city of Nashville created the Metropolitan Homelessness Commission in 2005. The goal of the commission was to assist the community with finding a solution for homelessness through the implementation of a ten year strategic plan. Although the commission has implemented several initiatives, the problem of homelessness has seen few visible signs of improvement.
Having been a homeless outreach worker for several years, I ventured to areas of Nashville that I knew held a large portion of the homeless community. The downtown area, east Nashville area, and south along the banks of the Cumberland River have historically been the areas where the homeless congregate and live. I spoke with several members of the homeless community, most of whom requested to remain anonymous, and asked them to share what it is like to be homeless as winter and the holidays approach.
A homeless man sits on a bus bench and watches people as they pass by.
Brian, a 26-year-old man who is originally from Clarksville, TN, told me he became homeless about 7 months after being laid off from his job. His unemployment and food stamps would cover food, utilities and gas so he could search for a job, but it would not pay the rent. He has been living on the street for the past 15 months.
He told me that Christmas is like most any other winter day for him, a struggle to stay warm, "occupied and out of trouble", and searching for a hot meal. The thing he did like about Christmas and Thanksgiving was that the Rescue Mission and several churches prepare holiday dinners for the homeless and allow them to rest and relax in a warm environment. He told me:
"I know I can get a hot meal, take the time to get warm and maybe even get a hot shower if I am lucky. Other than that, it is just another day, nothing special about it."
Brian does not appear to be alone in his sentiment. Several other members of the homeless community told me they mainly plan on spending Christmas getting a nice meal and staying warm and dry.
"Cowboy" told me he plans to take advantage of an offer by the Campus for Human Development to call his family in Illinois on December 23rd. He will spend Christmas getting a hot meal at the mission and maybe play some cards and watch television while he relaxes in the "noisy but warm" commons area.
Two ladies I spoke with said they hope to be able to spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day at a church participating in the Room in the Inn program. They told me that in the past the churches have had people come in to fix the ladies hair and do their nails on Christmas. Kathleen told me:
"They make Christmas special because we not only get a real Christmas dinner, but we also get to feel like ladies. We can clean up, put on make up, have our hair fixed nice and our nails pretty. It makes for a special day."
Sadly, the remainder of the winter months are not as enjoyable for those living on the streets of Nashville. When the temperature drops below 36 degrees, Nashville has Cold Patrol, a group of volunteers and outreach workers with the Union Rescue Mission who search for homeless individuals that do not have a warm place to stay. However many of the homeless are either not found by the patrol, or they refuse to leave their "homes", fearing someone will steal what little they still own.
Chuck kneels down to straighten his blankets before curling up to take a late afternoon nap.
Those that are left to fend for themselves in the cold do their best to stay warm, building fires for warmth and trying to eat hot, filling food in hopes it will help give them the energy to survive the falling temperatures.
Living on the streets, with no roof over your head or doors to keep animals and other people out, makes for a desperate life. For some, Christmas is a bit of a reprieve from the daily worries, but Nashville's homeless know that come December 26th, it is back to living the day by day, minute by minute life of just trying to survive.