Teetee is standing just over the crest of the hill, half-smiling and throwing me this now-just-who-are-you-and-what-are-you-doing-here look as I walk up the path of grass flattened by some big truck come before.
Quietly she welcomes me to the clearing, where a group of 10 or so tents — blue, red, gray, white, green, and combinations thereof — can at once clearly be seen. I’ve hiked about 400 yards from the road, through knee-high grass, mud and an abbreviated creek, to the backside of the new Tent City.
The clearing is long and narrow like a mountain hollow and about as wide as a basketball court, with wooded areas drawing its boundaries. Among the brush and trees on the high side of the hollow is a secondary camp where a small group of men have staked their tents, mostly tagged with big-box-brands like Coleman. At the top of the hollow is a pallet’s worth of donated goods, mostly bottled water and some food items.
Teetee is wearing a polo shirt and shorts, hair brushed off her face, on a ferociously hot pre-summer afternoon. The night before, she and 23 other homeless people arrived via bus at this place, two acres of temporary living space in Hickory Hollow donated by landowner Lee Beaman.
Probably somewhere in her mid-30s, Teetee — who insists that’s her only name — isn’t as tight with her opinions of the new Tent City as she is with her life’s details.
“It’s too far out of the [city] limits,” she says, shaking her head as a few young men shuffle past, carrying cases of bottled water. “It means you got to get up real early in the morning [to take the bus to town].” Not that she’s not grateful.
Teetee was one of some 140 people displaced when, during the first weekend in May, an overflowing Cumberland River flooded the original Tent City, a group of homeless encampments under the Hermitage Avenue Bridge near downtown. She’d lived there for two years before the floodwaters came and took most everything from the residents there, leaving behind a muddy, possibly toxic mess Metro police have declared unfit for humans.
As residents spent the first two weeks post-flood in Red Cross shelters — and, when those closed, in churches, hotels and other spaces donated by various local humanitarians — volunteers who assist the homeless scrambled to find new, open land for Tent City’s residents.
The camp has strict rules (no permanent structures, no furniture other than tents and camping chairs, no drinking outside of one’s tent) and an order from the sheriff’s office that there can be no trespassing at this private Tent City; in other words, no one can be there but those who are brought there.
Most importantly, the place is to be kept clean. The portable toilets will be paid regular attention. Random street detritus — a characterizing element of the original — is not there now and is far less likely to wind up there, given the remoteness of the site.
But all is not well in Hickory Hollow. As word leaked out early Wednesday that a new Tent City had emerged near the Target on Bell Road, some neighbors took to mass emails with their complaints. A tea party-affiliated group appeared ready to mobilize against the landowner who donated the plot (no word as of press time on the lasting effects of the cognitive dissonance in self-proclaimed libertarians telling a private landowner what to do with his property). Worries of increased crime and concerns about safety swirled.
Ben Freeland seemed to be keeping a cool head about things. The owner of the nearby Freeland Chevrolet Superstore and chair of the Hickory Hollow Action Partnership — a neighbors-and-businesses group that’s worked in the recent past to reduce crime and beautify the area — organized an “emergency meeting” Wednesday afternoon to begin grappling with the Tent City problem.
“Obviously we start with the homeless, where they’re able to go in transition — it’s a tough situation for them at this point,” Freeland says. “As a community, we’ve just made a lot of progress here and really united in the past year and done a great job of reducing crime, beautification efforts and recruiting new businesses. We’re just really cognizant of everything that goes on in the area.”
A pointed awareness of the movements of your neighborhood is the mark of a good citizen. So is intellectual honesty. Let’s hope the citizens of Hickory Hollow can rise to this occasion — and above the tired stereotypes that can engender paralyzing fear about a few handfuls of people camping in a place most won’t even see.