On a side street facing a busy highway, stands a small unassuming church in Nashville, Tennessee, the Green Street Church of Christ. It might be small in size with a membership of only 30, but don't let that fool you. Their dedication to effective ministering to the homeless and their community has caused quite a stir throughout the nation.
What has created this stir? On the side lot of the church stands a neighborhood called "The Sanctuary." It is a community of tiny homes and tents that provide transitional shelter for people who are homeless.
Most of the individuals that come to the Sanctuary are tired of living on the streets or in shelters across the city where safety, drugs and theft are major issues. They are ready to make the changes in their life to break the vicious cycle.
The size of the lot is very small, yet it comfortably fits 9 tiny homes and 16 tents. Enough room to house 25 gracious souls. The tiny homes are donated through local churches and organizations across the city.
While currently there are no electric or water connections to the houses, the residents are pros at improvisation and make the best of what resources they have available. The church supplies water through an outside faucet and also provides Port-a-Johns. Costing a mere $500 a month, it is a very low expense and cost efficient program.
As I walked around the camp, I was completely blown away at how each resident took such great pride in the cleanliness and care of their tiny homes and tents; they were all busy straightening and cleaning. It was so clear that those tiny buildings and tents are much more than a shelter in their eyes. Those tiny spaces are home; they are a space to customize and add their own creative and personal touches. Each were filled with unique decor such fresh potted herbs, make shift tables, bedroom furniture and small but functional kitchens.
Apart from the obvious care for the buildings they occupy, I was surprised to see just how much the occupants care for one another. They are a close-knit group with very simple rules: No drinking, No drugs, No drama (with an emphasis on No Drama). And, for the most part the group gets along well. They are a community, a family so to speak, and they try their best to support and take care of each other. As I was walking through, I noticed two of the residents collecting food from their supplies and slipping them into a bag. I was curious, so I asked them what it was for. They told me that a new person had arrived who had nothing, and they wanted to give him a care package. I was left speechless by that powerful act of kindness. Despite their own low ration of food supplies, they generously collected food items to give to the new member to welcome him to the community and help him get on his feet. Such a touching moment.
I spent some time talking with Caleb, one of the deacons of the church and one of three leaders of The Sanctuary ministry. I was struck by his genuine excitement and love for the program and what it represents. The Green Street Church of Christ is 100% devoted to ministering and do it all without paid staff. The leaders in the ministry are people within the church with full time jobs and families who still manage to run the program with ease. Each of them have their own areas of strength to contribute and they truly do it for the right reasons. They give of their time and energy, devoting countless hours without expectation of anything in return. This selfless act of giving and devotion has moved mountains and shifted the mindsets of many, including Nashville's city leaders in fighting the battle of the people who are chronically homeless.
During my interview, one of the camp's residents, Pete, entered the room wearing a smile as big as Tennessee itself. He proudly informed Caleb that he received word that his Section 8 voucher was approved and he was signing a lease for his own place on the following Friday. What a blessing it was to witness such an exciting time in his life!
I was fortunate enough to sit and chat with Pete for a while. His story is like so many others, filled with great sorrow that pushed him onto the streets. Listening to him tell it was like reading a chapter straight out of a textbook on hard knocks.
Pete's childhood was dominated by a vicious cycle of trouble with authority figures and at just 12 years of age, he was on his own without family or natural supports to lean on. He bounced back and forth through the juvenile detention system and all types of homes. As an adult, he continued his cycle of trouble finding himself in and out of the state and federal penitentiary system across the United States for about 25 years. Finally, while in jail in Arizona, he was properly diagnosed and treated for mental illness conditions. The medications have done wonders in his life and have made him stable with only an occasional need for adjustments.
He says he moved to Nashville 7 years ago because the people are friendly and the temps sure beat the heat in Arizona. The move ended up being the best thing that could've happened to him. He found his way into The Sanctuary in May of 2015 and with the support of the ministry and a new level of stability, his life has improved dramatically. He has purchased his own car and now devotes much of his time giving back to the ministry that has helped him so much, driving the church van to pick up folks for their Wednesday evening programs.
To most, Pete is known as the "Mayor", but he differs in opinion saying that he does not like to be called that. He considers himself just one of the others and just tries to watch out for everyone.
Pete's life story is one that we hear of way too often; one filled with struggles of addiction, mental illness, trouble with our legal system, and the lack of a support. Like many others, he has struggled on his path, but with support is finding his way. His story is just one of those bounced around at The Sanctuary, but it is clear that those who call it home are well on their way to find stability. The success rate of finding stable housing after the Sanctuary is around 50%, which are much better odds than living on the streets or in a shelter. The Sanctuary is truly a place of protection and comfort for these individuals.
The project has been such a success, in fact, that city leaders are talking with the church about expansion of the site by way of a potential grant. The hope is to spread the program to more locations through participation with other local organizations and churches.
While The Sanctuary in Nashville may not be able to provide a solution to end all of the world's homelessness, it certainly is a step in the right direction as a transition program. It is a generosity and heart-driven approach to helping people find the safety and stability they need to heal themselves and find their way out of a difficult situation. With the proper supports in place and many organizations and city leaders on board, programs like The Sanctuary could ease the burden with this vulnerable population. It could help them see that another way of life is possible. It is my hope that more and more cities across the nation take note and rise to the occasion! Let's help provide more of our homeless brothers and sisters a little bit of Sanctuary from the storm they find themselves in.
Homelessness is a subject that is dear to my heart. You can read more about the spark here: The Forgotten Ones.
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