Getting to Know the Homeless

by Danny Abbott

Last year I attended the Orthodox Peace Fellowship conference at the Antiochian Village near Pittsburgh. It was a blessing to listen to experts on a variety of issues related to the OPF’s mission. For me, one of the highlights was not on the conference schedule but was thanks to a physician, Dr. Jim Withers, who arrived on the last day of the conference while everyone was eating breakfast after church. He had come to visit an OPF member who, in the context of her parish, works with the homeless. The founder of Operation Safety Net, he had become a “street doctor” almost by accident while visiting and doing health checkups on the streets of Pittsburgh. Listening to him inspired me to try to do something along the same lines. Realizing I am too old to attend medical school, I started looking for another way to serve the homeless.

Several months later my wife and I purchased a Nashville “street” paper, The Contributor, from a homeless man while taking a drive with our three-week old daughter, Katherine Martine. One of the articles in the paper was a story about a baby who had been born to homeless parents and soon after was placed in foster care. The only reason for the child’s removal from his parents was their lack of permanent housing at the time of his birth, even though they had obtained housing assistance. While in foster care, the infant boy died. My wife Jaime and I were outraged that the baby had been taken from his parents. Might he have lived had they been allowed to care for him? The circumstances surrounding his death prompted me to take a closer look at the epidemic of homelessness in my city.

We were also impressed that there is a Nashville newspaper dedicated to the problem of homelessness – a paper reporting stories like this one. At my wife’s suggestion, I decided to help out, offering to do whatever I could. (My daytime job, plus marriage and parenthood, preclude me from doing it on a regular basis.)

Though I lack any training in journalism, The Contributor’s director, Tasha French, a local artist and homeless outreach worker, gave me a crash course. Soon I was interviewing people I would otherwise never have met.

Among those whom I have met are people helping homeless prostitutes get off the street. In Nashville there is an Episcopal priest at Magdalene House, Rebecca Stevens, who has developed a program to help prostitutes find a new direction in life, free of drugs and no longer without an address. Residents of Nashville lovingly refer to her as “Becca.” Aside from arranging housing, she helps the women obtain high school equivalency diplomas. Magdalene House has graduated many women from its program. The next problem for them is finding work. A record of prior convictions, regardless of the nature of the offense, does not help anyone looking for a job. Becca’s solution was to start a candle factory for graduates who were unable to get jobs – a place to work where their past would not be held against them. The business, Thistle Farms, makes candles from natural products. Even in the present crippled economy, it is expanding its operations.

Thistle Farms’ national sales director, “Katrina,” a graduate of the program, gave me a tour of the factory as she described her past life of severe drug abuse and homelessness. It was extremely difficult to imagine that this bright and highly-motivated person was at one time a drug-addicted homeless prostitute. Katrina gave a candle for me to give my wife. It was heartening to learn that Katrina had been married just a few months earlier – Becca presided at the ceremony.

Thanks to my work with The Contributor, I have heard many encouraging stories from people who at one time had been homeless but managed to get a place to live. One non-profit group I visited, Safe Haven, is among the few shelters taking in homeless families and not just single people. At Safe Haven I met “Charles,” a man in his thirties, and his beloved three-year old son. It was amazing to see another example of the transformation that can occur when a caring community offers a helping hand. It was not easy listening to what Charles had been through, but he is now an assistant chef at a major Nashville medical center and is working on a degree in culinary arts.

One fascinating person I met, befriended and wrote about for The Contributor was John El, a talented folk singer whose songs range from country to vaudeville. John’s music centered on living homeless, the complications of romantic relationships, and his own spirituality. He is a man with a deep sense of God’s presence.

John brought me to his campsite at Tent City, a large encampment on public land down by the Cumberland River. With an estimated 3.5 million people homeless in America at present, there are tent cities all over the country. Aside from his instruments, I noticed his well-read Bible. He gave me a performance of some of his songs. Not many days later, the Nashville Flood hit, leaving many in Nashville without a place to live, including every resident of Tent City. Though I managed to find the place where John sheltered after the flood, since then he has moved on. I have no idea where he is now.

Since Tent City was washed away, there have been several efforts to set up another, safer place where homeless people can live in a “transitional” community, but the neighbors near proposed locations have passionately opposed being close to such a project. The result is that, at present, there is no place where homeless people who are married, have pets, or simply want the privacy that a shelter will not provide can go for transitional housing.

Above: Prayer gathering at Nashville’s former Tent City

Volunteering with The Contributor, I have also witnessed the fear and anger the homeless sometimes inspire. It is not unusual to hear people who shout “go away and get a real job” at the paper’s vendors. (Those who sell the paper pay 25 cents a copy. They sell it for a dollar, thus making 75 cents on every sale.) It made no difference that the people were at work selling papers in the hot Tennessee sun while their irritated detractors drove by in air-conditioned cars.

But the homeless also have their allies. One of the people I have interviewed is a celebrity, Jimmy Wayne, a Nashville singer with three top-ten hits in the country music charts. Once homeless himself, he now does a great deal for homeless people. I discovered he spent much of his adolescence “couch-surfing” – moving from one friend’s house to another, sleeping in whatever space was available, staying a few days before moving on to the next – until he was adopted by an older Christian couple who helped him get his life on a better track. During our interview, Jimmy brought up a verse that every Christian has heard, but too few take seriously: “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” (James 1:27) After quoting this verse, Jimmy asked me, “What would happen if every Christian took those words to heart?”

Above: Living rough in Nashville (photo by Justin Wright)

Writing for The Contributor has been an inspirational journey not only thanks to the people I have written about, but in terms of the people with whom I have worked, not least those associated with Amos House. Amos House is a local group inspired by the Catholic Worker movement. Its members come from various churches. It’s impressive to see how much Amos House has been able to accomplish despite relatively few resources. They provide a variety of services for those urgently in need. Many of its members are on the staff of The Contributor. One Amos House member, Jeannie Alexander, is a former lawyer who gave up a promising legal career in order to devote herself to the homeless; she is also a professor of ethics and religion.

I notice that people who write about the homeless fall into two camps. Some tend to romanticize them. Others want to paint them as mentally ill or as severe drug abusers, many of whom are involved in crime. Neither stereotype is accurate. If any generalizations can be made about the homeless, it is that almost all are stuck in their circumstances due to economic problems. Another valid generalization is that the homeless tend to be religious in one way or another – I have yet to meet a homeless atheist.

I do not know exactly where my newfound commitment will take me. It has been a privilege to meet some of the homeless and write about them. I want to continue to give a voice to those who rarely are heard. I know that God will lead me in the right direction. Perhaps one day I can dedicate more of my life to this passion for those who have had the carpet pulled out from beneath their feet.

Danny Abbott completed his graduate studies at the University of Arkansas. He is a member of St. Elizabeth the New Martyr Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Currently training as a civil mediator, Danny hopes to find a way to earn enough money in service to other people and still pay his mortgage and support his wife and daughter.