“We’re really making sure that the folks experiencing homelessness are being represented in those conversations, because typically when you think of those in a natural disaster, you think of homes being destroyed. And not people who didn’t already have a home,” said Meredith Jaulin, who represents the nonprofit Shower the People in Nashville’s branch of VOAD: Tennessee Voluntary Organizations Active in Natural Disaster. VOAD focuses on four phases of disaster management: preparedness, mitigation, response, and recovery. However, these four phases look vastly different for those whose address is behind a gas station, in a park, under a bridge, or near a riverbank. Those four phases look vastly different for those who are always exposed to immediate danger and the natural elements. Often, they are the first to experience these disasters. Meredith is working to ensure that Nashville’s disaster response includes all, while working towards a future where everyone is housed and equipped with material needs. And that starts with a place to shower.
A retrofitted school bus with two private stalls, toiletries, and 200 gallons of water.
Nonetheless, she didn’t start out in homeless advocacy. She started undergraduate with the goal of becoming an elementary school teacher, however, “I had this realization,” she said, laughing over Zoom, “ I hate school! So why would I want to do this for the rest of my life?” She continued: “I realized I wanted to help people. So, I turned to psychology and sociology.” During this time, her mom’s passing is what prompted her to want to pursue social work, particularly as it relates to addiction and alcoholism. Graduate school at the University of Tennessee led to her move to Nashville and the fact that addiction eventually became a very triggering subject prompted her shift from social work to homeless advocacy.
“I found that I had this passion for helping people who are either low income or experiencing homelessness. It’s something that I personally never experienced, but really had a heart for,” Jaulin said. She grew up making care packages for women experiencing domestic violence and for people living on the streets.
Life kept going: she grieved her mom, became pregnant in graduate school, and had her first son six days after graduating. Meredith took a year before really getting involved in community advocacy and using her social work license in a volunteer capacity.
The first time she heard of a mobile shower, she recalled, she was watching a Youtube video. The video featured a company called Lava Mae, which provides mobile showers across California. Meredith wondered, “Where is this in Nashville?” The video stuck with her and after working other jobs, she returned to the idea, and with a quick Google search learned about the Arnold family, a family trying to turn a school bus into a mobile shower bus from an article in The Contributor, a Nashville based newspaper sold by neighbors climbing out of homelessness. After reading, Meredith asked for a coffee with Russ Arnold, the man trying to make the bus a reality, and left the coffee shop as Shower the People’s executive director. April marks five years since this coffee, Jaulin says. It was three hours long because Meredith was so passionate. “It’s such a simple thing,” she said, “Even if you haven’t experienced homelessness, you’ve experienced not showering regularly, whether you’re vacationing, camping, or traveling for just two days. And to experience that on a much larger scale, I think, it’s something that’s really easy to get people to understand.”
However, their work doesn’t end with the necessity of showers. In fact, it just begins here. The floods last March shifted her entire perspective on the level of separation between homeless advocacy and natural disaster work. “If you would’ve asked me this after the tornadoes,” Jaulin said referring to the lethal tornadoes that blew through Tennessee in the March of 2020, “I would’ve said that they are two separate things, and we [Shower the People and VOAD] had the luxury of having supplies on hand to hand out to people who don’t have a home or can’t use their homes. But then, when the floods hit last March, that completely changed because we saw how, really, even though we knew before, vulnerable our folks really are to natural disasters, particularly flooding.”
Nashville is known for its bad, fast floods, and it was unfortunate and heartbreaking, Meredith said, “to know that our friends passed away because they could not get out of their tents fast enough or had nowhere else to go.”
That was when her two worlds collided.
Since, she says, outreach workers and homeless individuals take the weather alerts much more seriously, ensuring that everyone knows the closest places they are able to go in case of an emergency. A couple of weeks ago rain came down on Nashville, and while it was enough for a harsh weather advisory, it wasn’t enough to be declared a disaster for the city. Yet in her work with VOAD, they declared it a disaster for the camps. The goal was to get the campers supplies and replace items they had lost because as Meredith stated, “even if it wasn’t an issue for the city, it was an issue for the camps.”
“It wasn’t really affecting anybody else,” she continued, emphasizing the need to look at how this weather, even before a disaster stage, affects those without housing, especially when, for it to be declared a disaster, that is who it must affect.
Meredith’s goal with this work comes from both a policy and organizing perspective.
With VOAD, Meredith represents Shower the People as a voting board member, undergoing the route of Nashville legislation to reach their goal of policy. In the short term, Meredith would like it written into the policy of how they respond to natural disasters. She would like homeless individuals to be explicitly written into the plans of relief, so that when the time comes, there are direct people and initiatives put in place, created with these individuals in mind.
Even shorter, Meredith wants to see plans in place so folks living in encampments have access to alerts and weather information to communicate the level of concern and immediacy to those individuals to avoid casualties. Of course, in the long term, however, Meredith is working toward a future of affordable housing so Nashville doesn’t have “thousands” of people living in encampments. “We wouldn’t have to worry about ensuring everyone has a safe place to go during the storm,” she said, “ if they are already in a safe place.”
However, when it comes to city-wide policy, what comes to question, is what Metro Nashville Council is planning to do on the matter.
“Particularly when it comes to natural disasters because we’ve had so many and it’s at the forefront of people’s minds, it’s now an exciting thing to talk about. An exciting thing to still do in your area,” Jaulin said, referring to the areas of council members. “It kind of feels fake. It feels like it’s the cool topic to talk about right now. It feels disingenuous because where were all of these concerns and thoughts when people were found dead in encampments?” To Meredith, it doesn’t feel like something Metro Council wants to do. It feels like something they solely have to do.
However, she has hope and that hope lies in the people and volunteer organizations of Nashville. “After the tornadoes, there were so many volunteers walking down the streets and they just wanted to help,” she said. Professionally, she admires Open Table Nashville.
“Lindsay and Ingrid,” she says referring to its organizers, “are phenomenal women.” She describes her feelings towards them, jokingly as a “nonprofit crush.” “You can tell that they care about the folks that they serve. They’re not as focused on bringing the dollars in. They’re focused on pouring out to the folks that we serve,” she emphasizes. Moreover, one of the biggest differences over time is the way that Nashville nonprofits organize, she said, is the capacity to work together.
Lastly, Meredith is inspired by Liz. “She is somebody who I’ve known for five years,” Meredith said, “She’s one of the first people we started serving at one of our camps. She struggled with addiction and alcoholism.” She was always very sweet and kind and Meredith and her team routinely offered to help her get into a housing program. One day, she finally realized that “she was more than” the domestic violence and addiction she was experiencing and decided to get help and go into a rapid rehousing program. “She has celebrated 11 or 12 months of sobriety now,” Meredith said. Liz successfully completed a program, lives in an apartment with a Section 8 voucher, and has since reconnected with her family. “The other day, I was showing Liz a picture of her,” Jaulin said. “That I took when she was at a shower service, and compared to one of her Facebook photos now, she looks 25 years younger. You can see how much healthier she is. How much more alive. And seeing that is kind of incredible because we don’t get to see the successes all the time.”