Cook: Christmas among the tarps on Cameron Hill

Cook: Christmas among the tarps on Cameron Hill

December 22nd, 2011 by David Cook in News

You know those rare moments when the world turns on its heel and what used to make sense no longer does?

Down becomes up, left shifts to right, and the compass you use to make sense in the world spins and won't settle or stop?

I had just been handed my first of two cups of black coffee -- each mixed with powdered hot chocolate in a Styrofoam cup. I was inside Will Wallace's home, although calling it that doesn't seem right.

Wallace lives in a tent, covered by tarps and more tarps that are arranged in overlapping angles -- like some huge patchwork blanket -- to keep out rain, wind and snow. It's one of a dozen or so tarp-tent homes in this makeshift neighborhood in the pocket of woods on Cameron Hill, between First Baptist Church and BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee headquarters.

You can see a few of their camps as you drive by on U.S. Highway 127, just above the Fourth Street exit ramp. But you'd better look soon.

By Feb. 1, they'll all be gone.

"Here. Have another cup," said Wallace, taking the pot off the cook-stove.

This is the moment, as he pours the hot coffee, when my personal compass begins to spin off course. I'm in Wallace's home, silently taking inventory of all the things he doesn't have: heat, water, electricity, to name a few.

And he's pushing coffee on me like I'm staying at the Ritz. I got the sense he would have given me the coat off his back if I'd needed it.

"There is an openness among the homeless that you don't find in regular communities," Kiley O'Donnell, who lives next to Wallace, tells me. "We're all in the same boat. We help each other out because we know what others are going through.

"Here, that is our daily life."

It's as if so many people without homes possess something that I do not. It's an inverted and eerie form of social mathematics: Those with so little seem to own so much.

Generosity. Compassion. Lack of judgment or criticism. A transparency and understanding that recognizes that, in one way or another, we're all slumming it.

Drinking that coffee was not unlike some moments I've had taking communion. I am struck by a force much larger than me that says in a voice without words: You're standing on holy ground.

Strange, isn't it, to think that holy ground could be a homeless camp?

In November, First Baptist Church delivered letters to each of its Cameron Hill neighbors.

"As of February 1, 2012," it reads, "First Baptist Church will no longer permit anyone to set up camp and reside on church property."

At first, it seemed to me like an eviction notice. But the Rev. Thomas Quisenberry told me that his church and others in the area -- with the help of the Rev. Barry Kidwell's Mustard Tree Ministries and the Chattanooga Homeless Coalition -- are working to provide housing to each and every person staying on church property.

"We care very deeply for our neighbors," Quisenberry said. "We believe it is our Christian imperative to serve and do justice. Not just with food and water but also with relationships."

I believe him. And applaud him.

But God, help my unbelief. Why now? Homeless folks have been living up there for years. Why all of a sudden the effort comes to house them?

"They are not giving us the boot. That is a rumor and lie," said O'Donnell. "That church is wonderful and they are taking care of us."

Moments after she says this, Herb Hooper, a church member, pulls up. He's come to tell O'Donnell he's got a dresser, second bed and lamp for her new home.

"And I brought bread," he says, opening the back door of his car.

I look down at my own hands. Empty. What had I brought to these people as they huddle through December nights?


My compass spins again. Humbled, a bitter taste of my own arrogance goes down much harsher than the hot chocolate.

"We're just like everyone else," said Wallace. "Only our walls move when the wind blows."

Not anymore. A few days later, when I go back to visit Wallace, he's gone.

Moved into a new house. His world, made right.

David Cook can be reached at