A great company of the heavenly host showed up in Cookeville over the Christmas weekend. They didn’t have halos and they didn’t have wings and they didn’t wear flowing white robes, but they were angels nonetheless.
With sub-zero temperatures forecast for middle Tennessee beginning the Thursday before Christmas and predicted to hang around for several days afterwards, individuals and organizations that work with the unhoused population in Putnam County sprang into action. I hesitate to name them in this column for fearing of leaving someone out, so suffice it to say they are tireless in their efforts to provide food, shelter and loving compassion to those who need it most.
Searching for a place that was warm and dry and where hot meals could be prepared, these folks were offered the use of the student center at Collegeside Church of Christ. News went out over social media, in this newspaper and through word of mouth that the shelter was open to anyone who wanted to come. Cots were brought in. Clean blankets and pillows were donated. Vast amounts of donated food began arriving. Chili. Sandwiches. Fried chicken. Barbecued pork. A huge vat of jambalaya. People donated playing cards to help relieve boredom. One individual bought warm winter boots for anyone who wanted them.
Cars and vans fanned out into parts of town where the unhoused population tends to congregate. Rides were offered to and from Collegeside. Some homeless folks accepted the offers. Others did not.
Why, you might ask, would someone who’s very, very cold and likely very, very hungry not want to go to a warm place to eat and get a peaceful night’s rest? Lots of reasons. One of the biggest is lack of trust. Trust that those offering help don’t have ulterior motives. Trust that the meager belonging that must be left behind—tents, sleeping bags, extra clothes and things of that nature—won’t be stolen. Trust that their spot will still be there when they return.
Others hesitate because they’re unwilling to leave their dogs behind. Some homeless shelters can’t or won’t accept animals. That wasn’t the case at Collegeside. Crates had been provided so that dogs could come inside and be safe and warm. An anonymous individual hauled eight 50-pound sacks of dog food into the student center. When I last talked with one of the shelter organizers, she told me that no one had yet brought in a pet, but that the donated dog food would be delivered and distributed to those who needed it. Ditto for any people food that wasn’t eaten at the shelter.
This is a wonderful and heartwarming story, no doubt. But a temporary shelter is not a long-term fix. There will be more cold nights this winter and next winter and on and on and on. People will continue to be hungry whatever the season or the weather.
It’s time for our community to look for permanent solutions to these problems. Individuals, churches, charitable organizations and—yes—local governments need to come together to address issues of poverty and homelessness. We need affordable housing. We need mental health counseling. We need a way to help unemployed people find jobs. We need a permanent facility where those who are struggling can find shelter and food and a safe place to lay their heads.
Nobody should have to sleep in a dumpster or under a bridge or in the back seat of a broken-down car. Nobody should have to beg for money or food. We have plenty of folks in this community—angels, if you will– with good hearts and good brains and good ideas. It’s time to carry the spirit of Christmas witnessed at Collegeside Church of Christ in the frigid days of late December into the new year and beyond.
Because turning our heads isn’t going to make these problems go away.
(December 31, 2023)