Liberation photo.

Over 125 people gathered in downtown Nashville on December 21 to memorialize the 97 homeless people who have died throughout the city in 2019. The memorial service was held on National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day on Winter Solstice, which happens to be the longest night and darkest day of the year. The stated purpose of the gathering was to call forth the spirits of those who have died and to remember them.

People have come together on National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day in Nashville for over 20 years. However, a great deal of attention began to be given to the day following the murder of Tara Denise Cole in 2006. Tara Cole was a homeless woman who was sleeping downtown on a carpet near the Cumberland River when two men attacked her, rolled her up in the carpet, and threw her into the River. Her body was recovered under a barge 12 days later after homeless activists from around the city converged downtown and demanded that her body be found and properly buried.

Guest speakers came together this year to memorialize the homeless dead. Howard Allen, a homeless rights activist, called for the city to erect more affordable housing units. He also stated that the homeless throughout Nashville refuse to give up the hope that their lives will improve in the near future. While he acknowledged that some discussion has taken place among city officials about ways to alleviate homelessness in Nashville, he deemed such discussions to be an example of “illusion without inclusion,” or speaking for a community without including its members into the discussion. He implored the crowd not to ignore homeless people in their everyday lives, and he called for a moral revival among leadership in the city.

Vice Mayor Jim Shulman then spoke. He stated that while government officials and leaders are often said to embody the moral compass of a city, the same could be said about everyone gathered at the Memorial. The main part of a local government’s purpose is to care for residents. Yet, the manner in which the homeless are treated in Nashville demonstrates that the city’s government is failing to live up to its supposed purpose. He called for city officials and everyone in the crowd to renew their efforts to make the city great for everyone.

Homeless healthcare advocate Bobby Watts spoke next and informed the crowd that most of the homeless who lost their lives in 2019 died from preventable causes such as disease, accidents, and violence. Indeed, many died from treatable conditions that could have been resolved if these people had stable housing. He stated that homelessness harms and kills. While the average American can expect to live into their late 70s or longer, the average lifespan of a homeless person in Nashville is 54 years. He called this a moral crisis, and he demanded that elected officials begin looking at housing and healthcare as basic human rights that all should be afforded.

Criminal Court Clerk Howard Gentry spoke before the crowd and confessed to ignoring homeless people earlier in his life. He is now inspired to champion for them as he has watched their numbers grow throughout the city over time. While he called the speeches of the day inspiring, he said that he still feels like a failure due to the persistence of the homeless problem. He encouraged everyone in the crowd to go beyond listening and talking about homelessness and to act in order to help alleviate the social issue.

Music was played by the Shelby Bottom Duo after the speakers were finished. The names of all 97 homeless people who have died this year were then read aloud. A poem was then read, and this was followed by an open mic session where people were encouraged to come forward and speak of those who have died. A benediction was next, and the Memorial concluded with a ceremony where people were given flowers and told to release them into the Cumberland River in memory of the lives lost.

Efforts to address homelessness in Nashville currently include a plan by Mayor Cooper’s office to erect more housing over the next three years. However, the Mayor’s office has also recently cut the affordable housing fund in half citing budget problems. At best these plans will only further line the pockets of the property owners first and foremost while subsequently providing some housing for some people.

Providing housing for people in need shouldn’t be addressed as an afterthought. Poverty and homelessness will persist in Nashville under the leadership of either party because both are committed to profit first and their constituents second. We need a people’s movement reflective of what the masses already know: homelessness is antithetical to all Nashvillians’ thriving.