From Vietnam to Nashville: Migrant brings awareness to homelessness

SUNDAY OCT 9TH, 2016

When we think of homelessness, images of alcoholism, criminal records, and drug abuse tend to come to mind. However, the causes of homelessness and the factors that keep the homeless from re-entering society are not necessarily interchangeable.  A young woman named, Leah Huynh,26, a migrant from Vietnam who was raised in Tennessee, decided to take it upon herself to understand the plight of the homeless through the lens of her own past struggles.

“Back in Vietnam,  I remember my parents working from dusk till dawn, just to provide a place to stay for us. Often times we had very little to eat, yet my father instilled in me that a little can go a long way, and whatever we had, someone else had less, so we must take it upon ourselves to give and share.” 

Huynh, wanting to be a role-model to her son, had always wanted to give back to the down-trodden and had finally decided to take action! Ms.Huynh reached out to Nalini-Global’s very own, Randell Stroud-Sagara, in order to strategically create an out-reach mission. Sagara himself, having experienced a brief period of homelessness in 2014, due to a series of unfortunate events, was somewhat acquainted with the homeless community through his time spent at the Nashville Rescue mission.

We began our quest at Nashville’s “Tent City”, located in East Nashville, off of a major parkway. The campsite, located adjacent to a railroad system, was fairly well kept. Approximately 15 patrons were held up in the location. Upon entry into the camp, the scene was quiet in the midday. We peaked our heads around for several minutes, noticing tables, laundry lines, and tents scattered inside a bushy yet well groomed forrest that effectively camouflaged their whereabouts from the public.

Eventually a man approached us from his dwelling and nervously asked, “What can I do for you?”. I said, “My name is Randy, I came here the other day and spoke to “Jeff”, we are the one’s who are bringing water.”   He replied, “Oh right! He told me about you!” . Courtesy of Ms.Huynh, over 30 gallons of water was donated to the campsite. While we unloaded the canisters from our car, more camp-dwellers approached us from the bush. A young man and his girlfriend who appeared to be in their early 20’s were the first to do so.

They shared their stories of struggle and explained the cycle of poverty. As one of the dwellers explained to me,

” We are the secret side of America that are routinely forced outta sight. Living as third world refugees in a 1st world country. Most Americans are one paycheck away from being evicted, one car repair from losing their job, one divorce away from losing half your income, one health problem away from going bankrupt, one traffic ticket away from losing your drivers license. With the average rent in Nashville being close to $800 dollars per month, plus electricity, and other costs, including transportation, the advice of “go get a job” isn’t enough. The average entry level job pays between 8-10$ per hour. Good luck trying to keep a damn roof over your head on that! Many of us get so depressed that once we end up on the street, that yes, many of us do turn to alcohol and drugs to ease the pain, and that ends up landing us in jail for petty offenses or we lose our licenses for not being able to afford to pay off a simple traffic ticket. It costs over $80 a month for metro transit. Once we lose our transportation and acquire records, we become slaves to our parole officers that we must pay every month, then employers dont want to hire us, and on top of all of it, many of us who end up on the streets suffer from bad credit, therefore no apartment complex even wants to take us in. I truly feel like those who live in poverty are made into criminals, not the other way around.” 

I asked about the dwellers’ view on the Nashville Rescue mission, and they all tended to have similar views and experiences that I too hold even to this day. The Rescue mission panders to donations, shoos away competitors, and has strict admittance rules into their program. Many who enter the mission become dependent and never make it out. The strict rules make it almost impossible to maintain a work schedule unless you are lucky enough to find a traditional 9-5 job working on the weekdays only.

For these reasons, among many others, the dwellers of the “Tent City” elect to brave the elements for the sake of less restrictions and more flexibility in who they trust. Unlike the Rescue mission, which operates more like a prison, the campsites act as a community, where they make newcomers earn their keep and develop trusting relationships. As one of the dwellers told us,

” Many volunteers and other homeless people come through these parts who seem innocent enough, yet they take advantage of us for media gain or in the case of outsiders who wish to join our camp, seek to take advantage of our kindness by selling the food that we gave to them for free in order to profit off of other homeless people. We really have to police ourselves in this community and help eachother rise out of this situation.” 

Most of the dwellers wanted to remain anonymous and expressed fear of those claiming to want to help them. Due to Governor Bill Haslam’s “anti-camping law”, that was passed back in 2013 as a retaliation against “Occupy Nashville Protestors”, the state has the discretion to arrest anyone they see sleeping on so called, “public property”. Luckily, these particular tent dwellers, have the local railroad company backing their plight through their own land deed on the soil they temporarily call home.

During our initial water drop, we noticed a caravan arrive with two men inside. One of the camp-leaders pulled me aside and said, “There is Steve and Eddie”.  Apparently, they were the founders of “Homestreet  Home Ministries”, a local non-profit that spends its days driving around the city feeding the homeless and mentoring at-risk individuals through lectures and seminars. Steven Young, was once homeless himself he states. Upon meeting us he explains,….

” I was homeless for 3 years. I thought it was only going to last about two months but it turned out to be a more difficult situation than I had imagined”.

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(Eddie Sanchez,Steven Young, Stroud, Leah Huynh at a homeless campsite.)

Things turned around when he met Eddie Sanchez. A passerby who walked past Young on a daily basis. Eventually they formed a friendship, Young worked his way off the streets, and the pair formed their non-profit.  Both men have stark contrasts. Steven, a tall heavier set male, who is has a bear-like grip and a non-nonsense attitude, yet speaks with honor and great passion. Whereas Eddie has long hair, very soft-spoken, and has a razor-sharp focus.  The pair have quite the chemistry!

As myself and Ms.Huynh finished passing out the water, we engaged in a two hour long discussion with the pair alongside the camp dwellers. Young shared my sentiments about the Rescue mission and other so called non-profits in the area who had turned “corporate”, (a slang term meaning that the organizations had become recognized and profitable, thus you saw very little of their presence in the field of out-reach, instead you can find their workers on the phone begging for monetary donations.) Young and Sanchez explained that their organization uses about 95% of their donations to directly aide the homeless, whereas the rest was used to cover gas and website expenses.

Young, the more vocal of the two, gave me his straightforward analysis,

” About 30% of the homeless are committed to getting off the street. The rest have given up and succumbed to addiction or depression. We try to give extra resources to those we feel are putting in the extra work to get off the street, yet, regardless of how you live your life, it is our oath under God to feed anyone who is hungry and cloth anyone who doesn’t have a shirt on their back. Everyone has potential, and we want that 30% number to rise, but it’s going to take some tough love,reforms in the economy and justice system. We don’t sugar-coat anything, and we hold these people accountable. I too was once homeless and understand the pit-falls they face. I am not afraid to show tough love to those we help. And by tough-love, I mean, taking away their beer bottles and giving some heart to heart lectures that they don’t want to hear but need to hear!”  

Some may be shocked to hear a non-profit leader who is also a minister to speak in such blunt terms, but you cannot really argue with his logic. While many organizations coax their donors into pity and victimhood in order to seek larger donations, Young and Sanchez obviously believe in a pragmatic and balanced approach! An approach that is noble and quite refreshing, especially after having worked in the non-profit sector where seeking donations tend to take precedent over actually helping those intended to benefit from said donations.

After sharing stories and making friends with Steven and Eddie, Ms.Huynh organized a fleet of her friends and family on sunday Oct.9th to distribute over 50 boxes of pizza, 13 cases of water bottles, and care packages hand-made by Huynh and her friends, which mainly consisted of hygienic products to the homeless population in Nashville.  I decided to meet Ms.Huynh alongside her friends at “Tent city” to start “Operation Pizza”.  Steven and Eddie later met up with us and agreed to aquaint us with other homeless outposts scattered throughout Davidson county.

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What we saw was life-changing and profound. People living alone in tents alongside intricately carved paths in secluded forests,  larger groups living next to river embankments, young people with college degrees sleeping on couches underneath bridges, and the list goes on.  During our journey, as we drove around town with our fleet of cars, passing out supplies, we came across all types. Those who had given up, and those who clearly were working to get out of the situation. One person I came across even had a business-plan written  up and was asking me for advice on how to obtain a business license. He had saved money for lawn-care equipment and a hotdog stand through his work with temp agencies.

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During our journey, we also came across many innovations. One homeless man had an interest in “off the grid” living tactics and managed to build a wind-turbine energy generator and a solar generator that he made himself using spare parts from toys and leftover electronic equipment.  It allowed him to charge his cell-phone, power a small fan, and a radio for entertainment.  He explained the mechanics of how he built it, however, his knowledge was vastly superior to mine on the subject material. I was truly impressed.  The man, who called himself, “Terry”, humorously explains.

” I cant get a job without a phone to answer. And I cant make it to work if I die of a heat-stroke. And I can’t smile without a song to dance to!” 

I also kept hearing the name, “Champ”, being mentioned in the homeless camps that we came across. Apparently he was a bit of a legend. I briefly mentioned my background in boxing, and his name would come up everytime.  “Champ”, was a former state boxing champion who had a promising career in the sport of boxing before he lost his family and ended up on the streets. I asked to arrange a meeting with him, but later learned from another homeless man that he had checked into rehab. I hope to look for him in the future and possibly connect him with the boxing scene in Nashville and allow him to teach some of my students as I myself am a boxing coach. Anyone who has his resume in the sport can surely be an asset to young up and coming fighters. His story and expertise could potentially make him the perfect coach and mentor for other fighters. (Stay tuned for that developing story)

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(Ponce and Stroud: Ponce is a homeless single-father with a heartbreaking tale. )

As our day of outreach came to a close, we shared moments of laughter, encouragement, humbleness, outrage, pity, empathy, and a whole slew of emotions. In fact, we even managed to attract a few hecklers who criticized our efforts stating that we were wasting our time. Nevertheless, as Ms.Huynh put it so eloquently in her own words,

” This isn’t about what they decide to do with the resources we give them. It’s about doing what is right. Standing by those who are going without, and letting society know that we do care. Even if there is only a percentage of homeless who are dedicated to getting off the streets, it doesn’t matter to me. I give because it feels good to give, and I have seen first-hand what it feels like to be hungry. My father instilled this quality of compassion in me. It’s here and I can’t get rid of it, so I’am going to continue my efforts because it feels right! If you have a bed, a roof over your head, and you know where your next meal is coming from, then you’re in a position to help! Because these people don’t have those things. If for nothing else, do it for your karma. Someday, you may find yourself in need of its blessing.”