It had been almost three weeks since the flood of 2010 wrecked Tent City when Sherril Carr and her partner, Luis Alberto, went home to claim their bicycles.
Trudging up the small incline toward the access street that leads to the condemned colony, Carr and Alberto were walking mountain bikes caked in dried mud along the gravel road.
“We’re lucky they were still there,” Carr said, squinting in the bright sunlight of a recent Wednesday morning. The couple lost their tent, clothing, cooking supplies, blankets, phones and radio. Alberto, who is of Cuban descent, lost his identification and birth certificate — he showed a passport when asked how to spell his name. The two, who spent the last six months at Tent City, planned to use the day to seek assistance, first from the Red Cross and then to try to claim food stamps.
Carr and Alberto have been living on the street since the roiling Cumberland River jumped its banks and claimed everything around it in a wash of record rainfall. Some 140 people have been displaced from Tent City, left as a toxic wasteland when the waters receded. In the immediate aftermath of the flood, many of them moved to a Red Cross shelter at Lipscomb University.
But that shelter closed on Tuesday, as did the city’s remaining Red Cross shelters. With Tent City off limits by police order, no one is sure what might become of its inhabitants, most of whom lived there — homeless, as it were, but also part of a distinctive and tight-knit community — not so much by necessity but choice.
Will there be another?
Under the Hermitage Avenue Bridge, where one Tent City encampment used to be, there remains only the detritus of the squatter: torn-up tents, a grill or two, pots and frying pans, pieces of luggage, clothes and hats, a lonely boot, and a Bible opened to Isaiah — the chapter, in fact, where the prophet speaks of a cultivated vineyard producing only wild grapes, which seemed fitting. Everything is caked in dirt.
Near the river, a backyard-style shotgun shed was flipped on its roof, window broken and door hanging slack-jawed. A tarp slung into a tree branch that juts over the Cumberland lilted in a morning breeze.
Tent City was no Shangri-La. To some, it was a filthy, rat-infested receptacle for the city’s leatherneck street warriors. To others, it was an alley version of Survivor — perhaps even sharing in the infantile gamesmanship. To its residents, it was a home disconnected from any grid.
When Doug Sanders and a team of volunteers arrived there on the Sunday of the flood, Tent City was awash in a nasty mix of floodwater, diesel fuel and potentially toxic sludge.
Sanders and the others caravanned residents to temporary shelters; most arrived at the Red Cross’ Lipscomb University shelter, where they would remain until it closed last Tuesday.
There, residents met with members of the Metro Homelessness Commission, which over the course of 10 days managed to connect all but a handful of Tent City’s tenants with other housing options, most of them temporary. According to Metro Councilman Erik Cole, who chairs the commission, a mix of volunteer and church groups — including Sanders’ Otter Creek Church of Christ and Jeannie Alexander’s Amos House, a Catholic outreach group — abetted the ongoing flood-relief efforts.
Displaced Tent Citians were also provided housing vouchers through the Metro Development and Housing Agency: 12 left with Section 8-like rentals, and well above that applied; even more went to hotel rooms — donated by the Gujarat Cultural Association — where they’ll have a free week; some went to generous churches; and a few trekked to the Nashville Rescue Mission and the Campus for Human Development.
“Out of all the people we served on Monday, only two individuals wanted to go back into a tent situation,” Clifton Harris, director of The Key Alliance, the fundraising arm of the homelessness commission, said.
Sanders said by the end of the ordeal, most Tent City denizens were exhausted. While the outreach efforts were tremendous, he said, a lot of the people who lived in the riverside camp are upset and uneasy.
“For them it’s also a feeling of real fear and vulnerability, because they are totally at risk now of, ‘Who’s going to find them a place,’ ” he said. “They have no place to go, and they have no place to go back to.”
Some, like Carr and Alberto, simply wound up on the street. Though Tent City was scheduled to be closed in August because of repair work on the bridge above it, there’s no way to know whether its citizens would’ve snapped into more traditional housing and homelessness programs — like they’re being shepherded into now — or tried to live the same off-the-grid lifestyle to which they’d become accustomed.
Sanders, Alexander and others are looking now for a 2-acre swath to temporarily rebuild Tent City. While Cole said the commission would work with them to that end, he was clear that the commission would prefer the 140 or so go the traditional route.
“[But] none of us are naive enough to think there’s not going to be another Tent City somewhere in the future,” he said.