A woman sleeps on a public bench at the intersection of 9th Ave. and Church St. in downtown Nashville. Like many who are without permanent housing, this woman has laid claim to a specific location–a bus stop bench. This is her bench. She can be found here or the adjacent corner on Church almost any given night. And others in her situation generally respect each others’ claims on locations and don’t infringe–favorite places to sleep are doorways with wide overhangs and alcoves, anyplace with a bench, beneath bridges, or even in semi-permanent camps. Many of the homeless encampments are well-established and well known, even if also sometimes perceived by authorities and nearby property owners as a nuisance.
Lillian Spurlock (pictured above), who volunteers with a ministry serving Nashville’s homeless, said the homeless are not all without means. Many have small incomes, even jobs. But due to the high cost of living and other circumstances, they get caught in a cycle they can’t get out of by themselves. So they end up staking out a safe places to rest or even to build a camp. Whether the encampment is under an inner-city bridge or a secluded woodland, the well-worn paths to these camps are a clue to how long they have been used by the homeless. Some of the trails are so well-defined they look like groomed nature trails. Some are even given gravel treatments. Most of the encampments are hidden in plain sight, especially where there are bridges. Volunteers and social workers are familiar with the areas and routinely visit the camps to check on people.
Nothing is really yours except maybe your tent and your backpack.
Below Michael Haley rests on a sofa at a bridge encampment while conducting an assessment with our team of journalists. We had heard a rumor that Nashville municipal crews had forcibly removed (with bulldozers no less) the homeless living at an East Nashville encampment visible from the freeway. The Rumor said city officials did it because they didn’t want the eyesore visible when visitors arrived in Nashville for the NFL Draft. The rumor, of course, was false on most counts. While it was true the camp dwellers were asked to leave (fact is they are routinely asked to leave these illegal encampments), it was untrue they were forcibly removed–certainly no bulldozer was used!–and there was zero evidence to support the story about the city not liking the homeless because they were an eyesore. But this is the life of a person living on the streets. Nothing is really yours except maybe your tent and your backpack. A person living in the open has no claim or rights to the security of land and place.