Tent City…An Evening With the Homeless

Time period: October ‘09…

Tent City…nothing more than a wooded area under an overpass by the Cumberland River. The dwellings are make-shift homes occupied by the homeless of Nashville, with conditions so rough that no children are allowed. But, this “City” is duplicated in almost every major metropolitan area across the country. Our purpose in our weekly visits is to attempt to ‘teach a man to fish’ rather than put Band-Aids on gaping wounds by the feed-n-run system. Not only do we try to provide aid to their stomachs, we have also developed relationships, which led to sharing God’s word, helping to find jobs, and relocating…if they so choose. Unfortunately, whether due to past run-ins with the law, addictions, or more often than not, mental illness; most choose homelessness as their way of life.

Most have lost hope.

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Welcome to our home…

What a night!! Even though we’ve been going to Tent City every Tuesday night for quite a while now, there is always a new story to tell. Although ‘residents’ seem to rotate with more arriving in Tent City each week, there are a few constants with which we struck up relationships. When we arrived last night, one of the residents was waiting at the ‘entrance’ with Cowboy’s homemade cart to help us carry our supplies back into the camp. And to our great relief, Cowboy hand built a long table out of scrap wood for us to spread the food on and hopefully cut down on the chaos. Cowboy is quite a character, a Vet, and the self-appointed Mayor of the city. Though he and Rhonda, his “wife”, have resided in Tent City for several years, he gave the impression they traveled up with lots of stories from Texas. Sounds logical.

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The girl I call ‘Tripper’ (she always seems to be ‘tripping’ on something!) usually crowds in and hugs and touches on everyone. Cowboy’s table normally would have cut down on the physical contact, but she just reached right over and gave me the biggest hug and kept saying how beautiful we were. I do not know about that, but it was her way of showing her great appreciation for the one decent meal she had all day.

Every week, someone will offer to pray for the food, usually one of the residents. Last week, Tripper was the one to volunteer to pray! The sad thing is…she really knew the ‘churchy language’ of prayer. Some have been in church enough, and even raised in the church, that they know about religion, but never actually knew about having or developing a real relationship with God. Their lives have taken such a left turn and they are so utterly far away from the Lord, that they find themselves in a very destructive place. Their world is dark, and they are emotionally guarded, but they also long for authentic love.

Most residents love to hug, which is very hard for a germaphobe like me, but when I’m there, I forget about everything other than showing someone cares. God cares. They have so much value and worth in His eyes. So, I hug. We all do. We are all out of our comfort zones. We remember they are people, loved people, yet forgotten people. And yet, we always need to be ready for the unexpected. Just last week, Tripper asked if we had lotion…then with total abandon, raised up her shirt to show us her side and stomach, which exposed shingles or some sort of rash…I thought a couple of the guys were going to throw up right there!

After we served all of the food, we headed back into the camp to give a couple of the residents some items we saved. One of our favorite couples moved out this last week. Their campsite looks so dark and dreary. We are concerned about the wife as last week she indicated her desire to head to another state where she had family so as to get away from an abusive situation.

Tent City 2009 (6)All we can do now is pray. And wonder…

As we headed down the path on the right side of the fence, Donna and I were invited into the ‘den’ of a couple of the residents. The resident song writer, Jon El, told us to be careful not to fall as we would hurt our ‘baby buggy bumper pads’ if we slid down the muddy hill to the entrance of their camp. I’m sure that phrase was worded into one of his many songs. He tells stories of famous musicians, mostly George Strait, cutting his songs…and all the dreams of his ship coming in. They had a fire-pit with tarps stretched over like a tee-pee. We were gently warned by Howard not to touch the tarp, as if he was protecting us from getting dirty. The fire-pit created a horrible smoke slime on the underside of the tarps (their roof). It’s hard to understand how any of them stay healthy. They called the den their coffee house. Folgers is their favorite, which made me feel guilty for craving my Costa Rican fresh grounds.

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Cooking dinner…

Later, Karen and I, along with Tim (our official body guard) went to the tent of one who was so very excited to show us the ‘home’ where he and his wife dwelt. He had the excitement of a kid showing us a brand new hot rod his daddy bought for his 16th birthday. They had a fire pit to cook over, and an old couch and chair in the three room tent. By the bed (a mattress on the ground), he had a TV hooked up to a car battery with a converter box, so as he said with a huge smile, they could watch CNN. Then he ‘showed off’ his heater, starting it by catching a napkin on fire with his lighter. The heater consisted of some sort of blower hooked up to a propane tank, the size of a grill tank. We were amazed at how it worked to heat up their little space. His wife talked of the difficulty she was having looking for a job. Most places hire on line and she does not have access to a computer living in the woods under the overpass. But they are trying to keep up their spirits, and genuinely seem like decent people. We made arrangements to get her to the library for their Internet use. I often remind myself, but for the Grace of God, there go I.

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Tent City Dwellings

What a muddy mess! God in his goodness though, stopped the rain while we were there and as soon as we headed up the path to leave the rain came pouring down! Yes, we should feel guilty…after all; the residents of Tent City do not have a choice but to endure all the elements. Camping 24-7. I thought about what a mess I must look with my hair falling out of the barrette I had it pulled up into. And then, looking around at the surroundings I was standing in, the women there had no curling irons, blow dryers, or mirrors to put on the make-up they don’t even possess. The only shower is an enclosed plastic construction work-site contraption set up along the side of the path, with no privacy I might add. The water is run from a hose connected to a building across the path, and cold (taking a hot shower is the first thing I do when I get home). They have no double vanity, and the toilet is a port-a-potty. Yes, I’d say they look pretty good for the conditions they live in.

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Shower…cold water hose

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The only shower…

If I were relegated to live in Tent City…I believe for me, the most depressing matter would be to rarely enjoy a beautiful sunset. As I’m sitting here writing this, I’m looking out my balcony at the pinkish-orange clouds changing colors into reddish-yellow, and dropping below the horizon. Last week we did see a beautiful sunset as we were walking through the clearing of the path on our way out of the camp. This week the sky was gray and dreary. Down the paths of Tent City, the trees by the Cumberland River, the highway overpass, and the elevated train tracks all block any view of God’s colorful sunsets.

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The dark path…the entrance to Tent City

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The tracks under the overpass by the Cumberland River…enter Tent City behind the trees to the left.

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The Upper Class of Tent City

After leaving the homeless at Tent City, I guess the biggest excitement of my evening was dinner at McDonald’s. I did not return home with the rest of the gang as I needed to pick up a friend at the airport who wasn’t due in for a couple of hours. I wanted to stay close to the highway for easy access, and parking is not the greatest on a rainy night in downtown Nashville, (and I felt very stinky from the campsite) so I reluctantly opted for the double arches to kill some time.

As I entered the fast food restaurant, I noticed a variety of patrons. There were a couple of families, a few who looked like they just got off work, and then there were a couple of people that looked homeless…my night I guess. Your typical patrons of the Double Arches.

As I was mindlessly watching the idiocy of CNN on the restaurant TV, I was distracted by a ruckus at the trash cans. A small man was reaching inside, moving the lid around. At first, I thought he was a worker trying to take the trash to the dumpster, but then he shoved the lid back and walked down the aisle, right past me, complaining (cussing) about the trash not having anything to eat inside. The manager came down the aisle after him and asked what was said. I overheard the homeless man telling the manager he wanted to buy something but only had a couple of dollars. Then the manager escorted him to the front (I couldn’t see the counter as I was sitting in the side dining area). I thought maybe he was escorting him out, but the next thing I knew, the man came back to the area I was sitting with a bag of food and sat down in the booth right next to me! He was facing the TV, watching CNN. After he scarfed down the food, he cleaned up the table better than any employee.

After few minutes, he started cussing at the TV and saying something about the government sending his son and all the kids into Afghanistan. The more he talked, the more agitated he became. The next thing I knew, he pulled up his shirt, and though it looked as if he was going to fix his pants, he pulled out a small liquor bottle and took a big swig. He then slipped the bottle back down his pants as if no one observed his actions. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. He was in such a sad state. After a while, he started getting too loud, probably half drunk, until the manager finally escorted him out.

I commended the manager for giving him the food for the couple of dollars the man had on him. Even though he would be considered by most to be of the ‘dregs of society’ he is also a person, valuable in God’s eyes, the same with the residents of Tent City. This morning I was reading Psalms 139:13-16, “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb….” The writer expresses how God knew us from the beginning, while we were yet formed, and He still loves us. No matter how chaotic or destructive our lives become, we are still loved and cherished, even if not by our fellow man. We will always be loved by the Lord, whether in plenty or in want. If only the residents of Tent City would be able to grasp that love…

Tent City

Millions of people
driving by,
lost in themselves nor
asking why.

Deep within the woods
come their cry,
a people unknown
left to die.

Societies waste
hunger in their eyes
no one plays.

Is there salvation,
who will pray
for God’s lost children
led astray?

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Finding God’s Love in the depths of poverty…

**UPDATE: I wrote this piece in October of ’09. The next May, the 100 year flood hit Nashville and destroyed a good part of Middle Tennessee, completely wiping out Tent City. The guys from our group risked their lives to literally drag out every last resident and drive them to safer ground. The residents were relocated across the county, most in homes with much better conditions. While we were unable to help all the residents find healing in a better life, we were able to help a couple of families find jobs and housing, enabling them to reunite with their children. Isn’t that what it’s all about? We may not be able to help all…but if only we can help one

As time permits, I will make an honest attempt to blog about the what/where/why’s of homelessness, as this piece only deals with stories of our activities.

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The Home That Love Built

A little story about my ancestors…

Great-Aunt Mildred Golden, Great-Grandma Gladys Golden-Frantz, and Little Me!

As a child, Bethany Children’s Home deep in the back hills of Kentucky left an indelible impression on me. Nestled in the bottom land by Holly Creek, the first sight looked like a brilliant painting by Thomas Kinkade. The Appalachian Mountains protected the home from modern civilization. Magnificent, aged trees hovered as angels spreading their wings. The only clearings were the fields on the farms, and the hillside where the old buildings seemed to harmonize with nature.

Living in the city, I rarely had the opportunity to breathe in the air God created our lungs to inhale. The aroma of huge oak, beech, cedar, and pine trees mixed with the tickling of the dust from the dirt road steadily lifted the soul. Pennyroyals and goldenrod lined the road creating a natural landscape along the curb of the forest. I often miss the simple beauty of a landscape created by God alone. A city offers neat little houses lined up in perfect rows. Shrubs, trees, plants, and flowers are precisely placed within utopian gardens. While the perfect houses and the precise gardens are charming, nothing compares with the picturesque beauty of nature.

With scarcely a motor vehicle traveling back and forth, we could hear only the sound of nature. Maple, hickory and walnut leaves played their stringed instruments in the wind. Cardinals sang harmony and mockingbirds sang backup. A woodpecker led the percussion. Only the fighting of my siblings interrupted the earthly orchestra.

Throughout time, Bethany Children’s Home, a place we call Bethany, seemed unchanged. The plain, wood buildings always needed paint. An old windowless, three-room, two-story log cabin was on the property when a local man donated the land in 1926. It stood silently still. The original wooden church burnt to the ground before I was born; therefore, they built the new church of cement blocks. No steeple stood on top of the church, just a small wooden cross on the front attic roof. Sounds from the “Liberty” bell in front of the church called all to worship. The two-story dorms were endlessly long. They reminded me of old government apartment buildings. Several smaller buildings just as dilapidated as the first, were scattered on the hillside. The home began with only three little orphaned girls. Known as “The Bethany Orphanage” in 1926, in just a few short years, by 1956 the home gained a Board of Trustees and became “Bethany Children’s Home, Inc.” The home was started by three women : Marjorie Burt and Laura Wendland, missionaries from the Free Methodist Mission in Oakdale, Kentucky, and Lina Miller (from the Chicago Evangelistic Institute class of 1924, Miss Burt’s Alma Mater, who resigned her position in the office of a business firm in Dixon, Illinois to join her two friends). Mildred Golden joined the three women the next year in 1927. With love for the children, their mission began in the bottom land of Holly Creek with nothing but a dream, a prayer, and a miracle.

I visited the home as a child and my Great-great-aunt Mildred was the first to greet us. Great-grandma Gladys was waiting anxiously in the background. I never fully appreciated the sisters. As any child would, I only saw them as old. Born in 1898 and 1900, they wore the dress of spinsters. Their gray hair projected a crown of righteousness. Thick glasses kept secret the direction of dissenting looks. When Aunt Mildred welcomed us, her voice was not a loud voice, yet she commanded attention. Great-grandma Gladys, being the elder, had a quieter nature about her, yet she never went unheard.

Aunt Mildred had an abundance of spirited energy. Always working, she expected an equivalent effort from others as well. She gave orders with an air of sternness, apparent even when she smiled. A well-deserved air of authority emanated from Aunt Mildred. The children knew, in her devoted manner, she loved them deeply. Somehow, through her gruff exterior, she obviously loved her stature in life. Called to the mission field by God, she originally set her sights on India. Aunt Mildred graduated from Asbury University in 1925, and subsequently began nurse’s training at Christ Hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio. Through a series of events, she left Ohio and arrived at Bethany on March 29, 1927, the year after its conception. There she stayed; a towering rock that helped build Bethany Children’s Home. Nearly sixty years later, her declining health forced her to move in with my grandparents in 1983, just before her death in 1986. Her primary position was a school teacher and nurse. She became the first clerk at the Bethany Post Office on July 28, 1928; Acting Postmaster in 1950; and Postmaster, April 19, 1951, maintaining that position until May 31, 1970. During her nearly sixty years at the orphanage, as a pioneer nurse she delivered 267 babies without a doctor being on the case at the time of delivery. Aunt Mildred never married. The orphanage became her mission…and her family.

Quite a bit shorter than her younger sister, Great-grandma Gladys walked with a limp, crippled from polio as a child. Deep down inside this quiet spirit lay a gentle sense of humor. During evening assembly, great-grandma acted out one of her many readings. They were always funny, and some were quite ornery for a conservative great-grandmother. I enjoyed her peaceful demeanor, but being an inquisitive child, I eventually ran off to find some adventure of my own.

In the dining hall, everyone ate on long tables with a staff member on the end of each. That was quite an experience. They always expected proper manners from the children. The food was home-grown, and the milk was fresh from the cow. I didn’t care for the vegetables, but I always begged for more fresh, raw milk. The flavor was sweet and strong, a very different flavor from the city, store-bought milk. Great-grandma packed a jug for our trip home, just for me. My most memorable time came on a walk across the road to the farm which supplied most of the food and milk for the orphanage. Being from the city, I was unaware of the shock I would receive when I unconsciously grasped the electric fence to aid my hike up the hill. While I was listening to the bellowing cows, and the yellow-bellied sapsucker in the Forrest, I suddenly found my backside in the middle of the dirt road! While the laughter flowed easily from the children, aside from my embarrassment, I sensed an air of contentment.

Great-grandma spent most of her days running the used clothing store. An old tin building, it was more of a shack that reeked with the aroma of moth balls. All the clothes at the home were donated by outsiders. The staff rationed the children out what they needed, and the children could buy extras with money they earned from chores. My mother gave us spending money to buy items in the store, not because we needed any clothes, but as a means to help support the children’s home. Great-grandma always smiled and patted our heads, as older people do, when we gave her the money for our purchase.

Through her peaceful spirit, given to her by God himself, it was apparent Great-grandma’s life had not been easy. She was young when she married. While pregnant with her second child, my great-grandfather left. No one ever saw him again, except in the features of the two children he left behind. After living at Bethany for the school year of 1927, she returned to her parents home in East Liverpool, Ohio, in March of 1928, to raise my grandmother and her brother. During that first winter in Bethany, it was not unusual for her and the two kids to find streaks of snow across the bed clothing in the morning, after a night of snow that had blown through the cracks in the walls of the side room that had been added to the store where they lived. During her years in Ohio, Great-grandma visited the orphanage often, and in 1939 she returned to Bethany to take care of the Home Girls and was in charge of the used clothing store until her death in 1977, thirty-eight years later. Great-Grandma never remarried, finding contentment in her position at Bethany and the many children she cared for. My Grandma had such fond memories of Bethany from her childhood, she actually sent my dad and his two siblings to live with Great-Grandma Gladys and Great-Aunt Mildred to attend school for three years in the late 40’s, giving three generations to have lived in the bottom land by Holly Creek.

Unwanted children…that’s what they called them. I never thought of my newfound friends in that regard. We played on the large iron swings, and ran through the fields just the same as my friends at home. The children were loved and well adjusted, a far cry from the horror stories about orphanages in the media today. I remember stories of the mountaineers leaving children to the door of the orphanage during the night, especially during the depression years. They had no means of feeding their families, yet loved their children and wanted for them a better life. At the orphanage, instead of a mountain shack, they were placed under a roof with heat on their feet. The children were fed, schooled, and definitely loved.

I have not returned to the tranquil valley in the Appalachians since the sisters passed away. Often, I consider taking my own children to the place which holds a few very dear memories for me. They need to experience the natural tranquility of the bottom land near Holly Creek, to experience the joy of giving love to those who have so much to give back. I cannot give this priceless heritage to my children for the Bethany Children’s Home we knew no longer exists. Government red tape forced the orphanage to close in the 1980’s. The home then became a private Christian school in 1986, leaving the mountaineers to fend for themselves or depend on government handouts. My children will see the orphanage only through my eyes when I reminisce on my own experience.

I often wonder, since Great-grandma is gone, since Aunt Mildred is gone, and since the home where so much love abounded is gone, who will take care of the orphans?


My Daddy, Great-Aunt Mildred Golden, Great-Grandma Gladys Golden-Frantz, and Little Me! Visiting @ Bethany Children’s Home.


My Mom, siblings, and Great-Grandma Golden-Frantz…and of course, Babette our Poodle!


Mom with my siblings visiting Bethany.