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Post photographer Michael Williamson is traveling across the country covering the economic situation.

A Country Song from Nashville

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"I don't plan on staying here," John El said from his Tent City campsite. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

NASHVILLE, Tenn.--And yet at times I know indeed, I’ve wanted to give up. But through those struggles I have found, you always lift me up.

The song slipped slowly off the lips of John El, a frail looking man sitting on a couch made from the backseat of a car. As he sang, he seemed to drift to someplace else, looking past the tarp above him and the dirt floor beneath him, seeing something more.

“I wrote a song and Elvis sent his limousine to pick me up,” El had told me a few minutes earlier.

In Nashville’s Tent City, nothing is quite as simple as it first appears and John El is no exception. Ramshackle homes are built using billboards that advertise grand opportunities. And El, who at 5-foot-10 has withered down to 120 pounds, describes a past seeped in grandeur.

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A woman named Mary walks past John El's "living room." Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

He’ll tell you he once had the home phone numbers of Neil Diamond and Cher and that he studied music under a man who helped shape the careers of Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne and Gene Kelly.

“I knew Kenny when he started on a three string guitar,” El said of Kenny Rogers. “I knew Mike Curb when he was 18 years old,” he added of the record company executive.

Whether you believe El or not is up to you. But as I sat on the makeshift couch beside him, listening to him croon, I found myself wanting to believe him.

“I grew up writing under Ben Weisman Productions for Elvis Presley and a few other big named people,” the 62-year-old said. “I have been with the elite and right now I guess you could kind of say more or less that I’m at the bottom of the barrel. But I don’t plan on staying here.”

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Storm and Rascal are the unofficial greeters outside John El's tent. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

El has lived in Tent City for about two years, and his life, as he tells it, reads like its own sad country song. He lost all his money – a fortune of “$320 million,” he said– in a bad divorce to a woman he was married to for 34 years. He came to Nashville to try to make it as a country music songwriter but got robbed as soon as he got off the bus, he said. He had asked a couple to watch his belongings while he went to the restroom and they made off with his three designer suits, a watch worth $30,000 and a pair of Lou Casey boots, he said. He tried staying at a homeless shelter but said he left for Tent City after he was robbed there, too.

Now, along with a friend, he has carved out a space in the wilderness beneath the I-40 overpass. It’s a surreal scene where the sound of traffic serves as an alarm clock and a chicken can be found drinking beer from a cup. It’s a place where the line between wild and civilized is blurred. It's a plant growing out of a boot.

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A decoration at the campsite of a couple nicknamed "Papa Smurf" and "Mother Teresa." Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

“It’s Gilligan’s Island,” Ed Dale said.

The unemployed welder's tent was one of the first built here and is complete with amenities found in any suburban home – shelves lined with collectibles, his daughter’s picture in a frame labeled “Baby” and an electric stove, microwave and television, all powered by a car battery. “I'm just trying to make the best of a bad situation," he said.

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Ed Dale holds a photo of his daughter Keisha. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

His wallpaper consists of the movie screen sized heads of Kenny Rogers and Ron White. They were on the billboard he used to make the tent and the translucent vinyl makes them visible from both inside and out.

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Ed Dale sits inside his "two-bedroom" abode, reading old letters. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

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Debbie Salisbury stands outside Ed Dale's home made from billboard ads. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

The billboards come from an overpass sign and are dropped by crews when they change the ads. (The one this week beckons people to drive to Nashville’s closest casino, where machines have a 97.4 percent payout rate). But mostly, it’s only the older residents who use the billboards for shelter. The newer residents, those hit hard more recently, set up backyard style tents. They are less elaborate, less permanent, leaving the option to leave at any time.

“Last year at this time, we probably had 30 people down here. Now, there’s about 60,” Denis Huey, an outreach worker said. “It’s getting bigger, daily.”

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A new cluster of tents rises under the I-40 highway bridge. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

When Michael and I met him, he was sitting on a chair outside the tent of a couple nicknamed “Papa Smurf” and “Mother Teresa.” Their camp has one of the most elaborate set ups, complete with a living room, kitchen, master bedroom and guest room.

“Everyone says I’m homeless. I say it like this, ‘No, I’m houseless. I’m in God’s home,'” Papa Smurf, whose real name is Richard Cole, said. “I like dirt under my feet. I’m a hillbilly, I can’t help it.”

“See where she’s going?” he said, noticing Mother Teresa, whose real name is Teresa Iris, walking away from the camp. “She’s going swimming again. You know why? Because she can.”

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Teresa Iris, who is called "Mother Teresa" in the camp, heads into the Cumberland River near downtown Nashville. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

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Teresa Iris uses a makeshift raft to paddle further out, heading toward the Nashville skyline. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

The two survive mostly on the generosity of local outreach workers and from the crosses Cole makes from driftwood gathered from the nearby Cumberland river. The religious symbols hang across the camp. Big ones. Small ones. Ones embedded with glass and others smoothed with meticulous care. They dangled in the background when a prayer service was held around the campfire the other night.

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Richard Cole (at left), nicknamed "Papa Smurf," participates in a group prayer session held often at the campsite. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

“You’re not supposed to come to Him perfect,” Iris said at one point to the group.

She was born at Walter Reed hospital and grew up in Maryland. She ended up homeless in part because she has mental problems, she said. “My mother calls it wanderlust. The doctor calls it bipolar,” she said. “I just know I have a hard time staying in one place,”

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A pair of high heels left to dry on a fence. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

When I last saw El, he handed me a business card. It was printed on thin computer paper. “First Choice Music,” it said at the top, followed by “John El, President and CEO.”

He also gave me the lyrics to three songs he had written and a letter addressed from Pat Boone Enterprises verifying he’s an “artist and songwriter of sincere interest and earnest quality.” (I considered, but did not confirm its validity, mostly because I didn’t want to know. Does it matter?)

“I’m hoping the way everything’s going, I’ll make the next CMA awards,” El said of the Country Music Awards. “I guestimate I’ve got a hundred songs already written.”

Through tears I’ve shed and faith in you. You led me on and on. To that straight and narrow path which will soon lead me home.

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(L) John El congratulates Richard Cole, nicknamed "Papa Smurf" on his newest set of driftwood crosses. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

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"I don't want to get used to this life -- I want out. I want a home," Lisa Parker said, holding Rascal. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

By Theresa Vargas  |  June 19, 2009; 2:35 PM ET
Categories:  Into the Wild  
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Next: An S.O.S Along The Road & A Reporter's New Role

Comments

Are the subjects of your piece affected by the long recession and therefore what might be called "chronically homeless" (or serially and chronically dispossessed) or are they victims of the most recently visible recession?

So many readers refuse to recognize that desperate poverty is not new and that nobody wants to be poor, not like this.

Posted by: hybl | June 19, 2009 2:57 PM | Report abuse

This is a disburbing and compelling blog that I can't tear myself away from. The people you profiled when you were travelling through Virginia and West Virginia seemed to merely be living a simpler life in simpler places -- where the joy of merely gathering with family and friends for a street dance on a Saturday night harkened back to a time before the disposable society and "real time" cyberconnectivity. Now, you're face to face with the abyss, and I feel for these people, whose situations are closer to your readers' than a lot of readers seem to want to admit. (Can't wait for the onslaught of dimwitted "Papa Smurf should be wearing a shirt" comments.) Keep up the great work!

Posted by: Jumpy66 | June 19, 2009 4:05 PM | Report abuse

deeply moving reportage, symptoms of the decline and fall of a once great power. still hard for me to grasp that this is the new reality: tent cities being something i only read about in the great depression, now apparently becoming a permanent fixture throughout the usa...

Posted by: expatbks | June 19, 2009 4:18 PM | Report abuse

Great report and photos.
Seems most of these people have been in tent city a few years before GM quit bragging about Escalades or the Fla. panhandle home developments tanked.

Posted by: davetree | June 19, 2009 5:35 PM | Report abuse

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Posted by: jennywhy | June 19, 2009 6:54 PM | Report abuse

Leaving homelessness is very, very difficult. Actually, without an advocate it could very well be impossible.

I know. Two yrs ago a former student, severely physically disabled, walked by me on a Manhattan street. He happened to be on my mind for the past years. I made the very conscious decision to stop and say hello. And two years later he is very close to leaving the shelter system and acquiring an apartment of his own.

A few of the virtually impossible issues involved in resolving this are:

1. The need of a mailing address (I allowed him a C/O ).

2. The need of a residence address. Yes, if you are homeless you need a residence and an address. And...get this...proof you reside at the residence.

3. Valid photo ID.

4. Birth Certificate (try getting this without a valid photo ID)

5. If you are not disabled you must work in order to maintain food stamps.

6. Try to establish that you are disabled. Try doing this with an obvious, visable physical deformity. It is necessary to have medical report(s) from a physician to even begin to establish this status.

7. Public assistance...well, you have to eventually work because it will end. Try finding work.

8. Hygiene. The obvious...is not very obvious.

9. Violence. Homelessness is a very violent life.

I did what I did to assist because at the age of 10 this 40 yr old man stood up during a lesson I was supervising(I was the teacher trainer) and stated: "Why did this happen to me? I didn't do anything to deserve this." He was run over by a car and abandoned by his mother when she saw his condition.

This stayed with me forever.

And then the subject appeared...10 years later...in my high school class. His plea stayed with me.

I want nothing...not even a positive comment or self righteous comment. Only an awareness of anyone who reads this of the humanity and dignity being denied those who for whatever reason are condemned to squalor, misery, cold and hunger.

And...for whomever reads this and for one moment thinks it is easy to leave this life to think again. It's really impossible to move on. I encountered a mix of Stalin, Kafka and Joseph Heller during the past years of visiting food kitchens, celler shelters, public assistance lines, hospitals. You cannot even begin to imagine the blind alleys, cutouts, dead ends and rules that contradict each other needed to observe in order to be in compliance and thus achieve eligibility for assistance.

Look at those photos and tell me, with a clear mind, that all but a few...if any...of these folks even know where to begin let alone possess the persistence, physical strength and knowledge of bureaucracy to negotiate their way to even an assisted form of self sufficiency.

I happened to have the time,skills, legal and medical resources necessary to direct this gentleman into what is soon to be a resumption of what most would consider a productive life.

Not 100% there yet. But closing in on it.

Posted by: jato11 | June 19, 2009 7:27 PM | Report abuse

Good story, but I don't understand how it has anything to do with the recession.

Posted by: spamsucks | June 22, 2009 2:59 PM | Report abuse

spamsucks, this is the beginning of a real bonafide depression. There were enough government controls to keep it from spiraling instantly into a deep and crushing economic downturn. But even those are limited. I don't think Obama has control over this yet. I rather doubt that he would admit he does.

In the end its about exhausting the surplus generated post-WWII. And then going into the negative. Which puts us right back into the
Great Depression which had not yet ended at the
outbreak of that war.

In the end its about solving the problems not just ameliorating symptoms. The "symptoms" described by our intrepid reporting duo are sure signs that it hasn't ended, isn't even close to ending ...

Herbert Hoover was a good man. His Republican advisers (just as today) advised him to let the market correct itself. If the market were truly a completely "free" market perhaps that would work. Unfortunately, there were and are too many very greedy people who use their gold to slant things too much their way. Roosevelt felt that the only way to stop that is through government controls and oversight.

But there are always loopholes, angles, and the fact that people do not invest their money as they should. Entertainment and the media (our culture) have now become our primary export. That is not how to build for the future. To run an economy.

Posted by: periculum | June 22, 2009 3:34 PM | Report abuse

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