“This is my house,” says Wendell as he opens a padlock on the door of a small shelter, about eight by 12, he says. Thanks to a friend’s skills, Wendell has “electric,” that is, a TV, a microwave oven, and a refrigerator, as well as the internet. “I’m on line,” Wendell says, as the camera pans over his desk chair and his laptop. “Living out here hasn’t been easy,” he goes on. “I turned my life over to God, and I have faith He’ll turn me back over when He’s ready. I’m ready. I wish He’d get ready.’
In Tent City U.S.A., which premieres on OWN on 5 April, the 53-year-old Wendell doesn’t say much about how he came to be here, homeless in Nashville, Tennessee. The film notes that he “served jail time in relation to a DUI charge” in 2004 and that he’s been homeless for six years. Like some 5,000 other citizens in Nashville, he’s in a place he never would have imagined for himself, a place defined by uncertainty and chaos. Still, he’s trying to find order, and to that end, he’s living in a community of about 80 other homeless people. In the camp, he points out, “Most people look after each other. Out there on the street,” he adds, “It’s not safe at all. They carry everything they own on their back, and if somebody steals their backpack, they’ve got nothing.”
Feeling “safe” might be the best way to describe the purpose of Tent City. According to Doug Sanders, a minister and organizer in Nashville, people become homeless when they lack community. Many people are affected by “addiction issues, financial issues, and medical issues,” but not all of them become homeless. The common element for the homeless, in addition to one or all of the above “issues,” is that they have, “for lots of reasons, isolated themselves and withdrawn and created walls around themselves. And an economic situation happens or a medical situation happens and they have no safety net.” The tent city, he says, means to “provide that and give them a foundation to reconstruct their lives.”
This reconstruction takes various forms. MacGyver, so called because, he says, “They say that I figure things out,” explains briefly that he came from a broken home in Colorado Springs, and that though his father “did the best he could,” the family was in disarray and MacGyver took to drugs (“Crack cocaine,” he says, I tried meth, different things like that”). Sober for eight months now, he feels kinship and loyalty with the other residents of Tent City. His new name suggests his new framework, that he can survive what’s in front of him, that he can figure it out. Likewise, Tee Tee and her partner Vegas share an idea of the future that’s hopeful: they imagine finding work, and a less temporary sense of place.
Stacey, who lives with her fiancé Bama and their dog, looks after the newcomers to Tent City, who are generally granted a three-day probation period, to see how they work out. Rules are simple: residents need to keep their areas clean, not fight with other residents, and if they do drink, they need to be sure to do it in their own area, and to tend to bottles or other garbage. “We have security that walks through,” she reassures Carla, just arrived. Stacey also keeps a special eye on the women residents, she says. She’s hoping to go to college for cosmetology, she says, because “The homeless is judged by their appearance, and I just feel if I can make a difference in that, I’m gonna try.”
Stacey’s plans change when floods struck Nashville in May 2010. It happens that Steven Cantor and his film crew are on hand for this crisis, which gives the documentary a particular dramatic arc. First, the residents evacuate to disparate sites—motels and shelters—some helped by limited time FEMA checks. Then the city drags out the process of finding other places for the homeless to reside. Doug and another organizer, Jeannie Alexander, do their best to find an alternative site, so the community might persist, even as individuals seek ways out of homelessness. When people who have homes complain about the homeless who are now residing on private land (120 acres of woods), Jeannie, a former corporate attorney, lays out the case. “People literally don’t want to have to look at homelessness,” she says, near tears. “In a place where people can’t even see them, they’re still not wanted” The very thought of homelessness is enough to make local homeowners anxious.
Jeannie also urges one of the (now former) Tent City residents to be appointed to a seat on the city’s new Homelessness Commission, to insure that at least one member can speak directly to the day-to-day concerns of the homeless. The film follows this process as well, the campaigning, the speechifying (“I know what it’s like to be homeless,” all the candidates say variously, “I’ll fight for the homeless”).
The film doesn’t look for narrative or trouble; the state of homelessness provides enough of that. But neither does it do much more than observe and assemble the Tent City residents’ experiences, with the storylines more often than not accompanied by a sentimental piano score. It doesn’t need to do much more than that. In showing homeless individuals as they forge a community, Tent City U.S.A. does necessary work. The homeless have names, they are visible, and they remain hopeful about what comes next. They’re ready.