It's 10:30 on a Friday morning, and the hot bar at Whole Foods is steaming, seductively tempting shoppers and Wi-Fi lingerers to grab a biodegradable plate and heap on the goodness. It's frigid outside, where the remnants of a recent snow still coat the grassy areas around the Hill Center, a retail icon of suburban privilege whose patrons are bundled stylishly in colorful scarves, gloves and cozy fleece wear.
Just inside the doors of Whole Foods' coffee bar, a little girl wearing an oversized, torn windbreaker and a pair of tennis shoes so worn that her sockless feet are exposed to the open air sits sucking her thumb in the large basket of a shopping cart.
Her mother, wearing a sweater held together in various places with safety pins, sits nearby working a crossword puzzle. There are more where that came from, as a plastic grocery sack stuffed with select newspaper sections is close at hand — in the cart with the girl.
The blond-haired child looks up and smiles, motioning her hand to her mouth and pointing to beautiful, glass-covered pastries on the counter just a few feet away.
"She wants to eat," her mother says sheepishly when a stranger looks at her as if to ask what her daughter is trying to communicate.
"I have a little money," the woman says. Swallowing her pride, she produces a clear plastic cup with lid — the kind that might hold a $4 Starbucks iced latte — that's about a third full of change, mostly pennies. It's probably not enough to buy even a cup of coffee.
When someone within earshot offers to buy them lunch, the woman haltingly accepts, apologizing for the cost and repeatedly declining drinks to accompany the chicken and pasta from the nearby hot bar. As if by habit, the little girl keeps saying, "Sorry."
As onlookers mostly avoid eye contact, mother and daughter sit down to eat, the woman performing universal maternal rituals such as cutting off the chicken skin and pulling back the girl's hair.
But as soon as the lunch benefactor steps away for a few minutes — promising to be back shortly — the woman gathers up her daughter, the food and the plastic bag of newspapers and hurries off, leaving behind only what is now an empty cart.
Apparently, such a reaction is a common survival instinct for homeless families.
"The [social service] systems are so complicated, and to be on someone's radar can be threatening," says Charlie Strobel, who founded Nashville's Room in the Inn shelter program and the associated Campus for Human Development.
"Children should never have to live out on the streets. But you would be extremely cautious if you as a parent were doing the best you can and aware that if you make a false move someone may grab you and take your kids away," he says. Homelessness, Strobel says, "is a failure of our community." And homelessness among children, in particular, "is a problem that nobody wants to face. It's a horror story."
Families are among the roughly 4,000 people who are homeless in Nashville on any given night — up from last year's numbers — and there were about 1,600 homeless children in Metro public schools last year. But while some seek help in local shelters, there are others who resist that kind of aid, viewing it as less safe and more risky for the family unit. Which is why many instead choose to live in their car, if they have one.
"The car serves as a house for a lot of people," Strobel says.
That seems to be consistent with the experience of Kevin Barbieux, who estimates he's been homeless for 13 years of his life and who has recounted many of his experiences on the streets in a blog called The Homeless Guy. He says that either the number of homeless families is overestimated or that many of them simply live in the shadows.
Rattling off the names of a few local shelters that house families, Barbieux writes in an email to the Scene, "Those shelters combined could not possibly be housing all the homeless families that are reportedly in the Nashville area. So where are they?"
A woman selling copies of the homeless newspaper The Contributor just outside the Krystal on Hillsboro Road says she often sees the woman and her blond-haired girl. Just yesterday, in fact, she tells the Scene.
They turned onto Abbott Martin toward Kroger in a little green "loaded down" car, and the girl was sitting in the back.
"She always waves to me."