“Tent City, U.S.A.,” a documentary from the Oscar-nominated Steven Cantor (“loudQUIETloud: A Film About the Pixies,” “Blood Ties: The Life and Work of Sally Mann”) that premieres tonight, April 5th, at 9pm on the OWN network, looks at a tumultuous ten months in a makeshift settlement on the outskirts of Nashville, a city the doc notes has a homeless population 30% higher than the national average.
While it can feel unfocused in terms of structure, the film stays laser-sharp in its point of view, using the residents of Tent City to explore a specific portion of the homeless population that’s trying to find work and a way back toward a stable existence. In the struggles of its characters, “Tent City, U.S.A.,” highlights just how difficult doing this can be as well, considering the limitations of the structures currently in place to help.
Located under a bridge on a flood plain owned by the municipal goverment, Tent City has housed a semi-permanent homeless population for around 20 years, and with the help of a local church and organizers within its own community has come up with ways to manage newcomers, to handle security, to even build a heated shower.
The 80-90 residents on the five acre patch at the film’s outset are living in homes ranging from tents with tarps to insulated shelters with wood-burning stoves to the shed with electricity and internet being occupied by Wendell, a former construction company owner who lost everything after serving time for driving with a suspended license following a DUI.
But not far into the doc, the residents of Tent City are told the Nashville government needs them to find another location in which to live, and while they’re in the process of securing a new spot May’s record-breaking 2010 floods leave them under 10 feet of water, destroying much of what they’d built and leaving little to salvage. The film tracks its main characters as the tragedy scatters them to different locations, with some taking up residence in a temporary camping spot on private land volunteered by its owner. It’s a remote 15 miles outside of town, but the surrounding residents immediately put up a fight — footage of the town meeting includes some unpleasant “not in our backyard” confrontations with community leaders.
The value of a permanent homeless encampment, along with the reasons why such a thing would be resisted, are underlined by the experiences of some of the prominent Tent City residents and the activists helping them. Some subjects find government housing, though it only offers a temporary solution. Another, providing a burst of uplift, actually gets his own place. (He speaks, poignantly, of having trouble sleeping the first few nights without the sounds of traffic and the camp outside.)
The election of a former Tent City dweller to a spot on the Nashville Homelessness Commission also offers a glimmer of hope that more empathy can be brought to the issue, and that workable longterm solutions could be discussed in a group whose members have otherwise had no experience themselves with being homeless.
“I wish some of them could switch place with us,” one man living in the temporary Tent City sighs after community protests against them. “Our door is open. We don’t have a door!” “Tent City, U.S.A.,” for the most part, succeeds in something close to that desire, to put audiences in the shoes of people in search of a stable place in which they can try to get their lives back together.