Rachel Rose, 24, lives with her mother in an apartment about 15 minutes east of Nashville. She’s saving up for a car. She’s worked at places like Sonic, Waffle House and a gas station nearby. On Monday nights she plays Dungeons and Dragons with some friends in a strip mall near her house. A self-described nerd, she’s obsessed with assembling the perfect Magic the Gathering deck. She’s also a singer-songwriter, although she’s been suffering from writer’s block lately.
Rachel lived on the streets of Nashville from the ages of 18 to 21. She sold The Contributor during that time.
“Something that I’m not sure a lot of people understand is that the battle of homelessness doesn’t end once you get off the streets,” she says.
Rachel cannot apply for a driver’s license due to a pair of trespassing charges she incurred while homeless back in 2013. She can’t afford to pay off the fines. Having a driver’s license would enable Rachel to get a better job, become a more dependable employee, and start playing her music at open mic nights, all of which she hopes to do.
“The struggle is still real, and even aside from the way it continues affecting me in [a legal] sense, there’s still trauma from it all,” she says.
Rachel grew up in New Paltz, New York, but fled to Knoxville with her mother after her abusive father threatened to have both women killed. Rachel had just turned 18. Her mother had grown up in Tennessee and several friends there offered to help them get settled. However, when Rachel and her mother arrived, most of these friends fell out of the picture. In the end, one friend offered to house just one of the two women, but not both. Rachel convinced her mother, who suffered from several compounding health problems, to take the roof. She knew she could survive on the streets, but that her mother could not.
“I figured, I’ve always wanted to go camping, it’ll be like an extended camping trip,” Rachel says. “I think having that attitude is a big part of how I survived as well as I did. I figured I’d make the best out of it that I could.”
Rachel’s life in Nashville was a far cry from her childhood in New Paltz. She describes the town where she grew up as, “what would happen if a hippie village and a college town had a baby.” She lived at the top of a hill overlooking a park. It was simple.
“I miss that small town feel. There’s nothing like it,” she says. “You can’t get that in the big city, even on the outskirts of the city, it’s just not there. Imagine my surprise coming down to Tennessee and ending up homeless in a big city after growing up in a small town.”
While on the streets, Rachel had to find a new community. She knew she had to stick by someone, and a couple of times that person ended up being an abusive boyfriend or ‘the wrong crowd,’ but she says she was making the best choices that she could out of the unfavorable options she had available. The money she made from selling The Contributor, as well as from “busking,” a term for playing music on the streets, paid for food and necessities for herself and the group she stuck with while she slept at homeless encampments. Meanwhile, her mother applied for Section 8 housing, and after a 19-month wait, they got in.
Rachel developed a “street family,” but she only uses that modifier when asked for clarification. Rachel is biologically an only child, but there are multiple people she met on the streets whom she just calls ‘my sister’ or ‘my brother.’ Now she also has nephews and godchildren she adores. Though one of the youngest of her group, she’s taken on a mothering role toward her friends. She recently dropped everything to travel to a different state to be with one of her sisters who was experiencing a high-risk pregnancy. Back on the streets, when her friends would venture out with the intention of doing drugs, Rachel would insist that she tag along to make sure they were OK.
“I’m a bit of a rarity when it comes to people who have been on the streets. I’ve never touched meth, crack, cocaine, heroin, speed, nothing like that. I’ve seen what that stuff does to people I love... I don’t do drugs. I don’t need to. I’m weird enough,” she laughs.
During her years living on the streets, Rachel would often wear a Batman hoodie. Others on the street called her Batgirl and made up a tall tale that she was a ‘psycho killer.’ It’s a myth that she laughs about now, but she’s thankful for the reputation that she feels protected her. Because of her time spent on the streets, Rachel often struggles to let her guard down. She also deals with the physical pain of scoliosis, arthritis, breathing problems, the aftermath of broken bones, and the mental strain of manic depression, anxiety and PTSD — conditions that began or were aggravated while she was homeless.
“There’s learning how to get out of that survival mode, there’s learning how to not look at everybody and wonder ‘How are they going to try to hurt me? How are they going to try to steal from me?’” Rachel says. “It’s been four years, almost, that I haven’t been homeless, and I’m still going through that adjustment. The process isn’t finished yet.”
Rachel is in a much safer place than she once was, but living in Section 8 housing in the suburbs makes it harder to access the cluster of resources for those in need in the Downtown Nashville area. The closest bus stop is a 30 minute walk from where she lives.
“It’s like a cruel, ironic humor. I ate better when I was on the streets,” she says. “Because there are so many food banks and things like that. But now that I’m in an apartment, I’ve got bills to pay. I can’t get to these food banks. The busses here suck.”
Rachel longs for transportation to an open mic night. She’s written enough songs to put together an album and sees her songwriting as a vehicle to connect with and help others. She particularly likes it when audience members can come talk to her after a performance.
“I don’t even care about being famous, I really don’t. It’s not about that for me. It’s about that human connection, that communication, that compassion. I sing a song, and somebody comes up to me crying, saying thank you. I literally had someone come up to me before and say ‘thank you, I was going to commit suicide tonight but now I’m not,’” Rachel says. “Maybe I can tell them a story about what inspired me, and maybe that’ll save them, maybe that’ll help them. Maybe that’ll put an idea in their head that wouldn’t have spawned otherwise, help them solve a problem, tell someone they love them, maybe not make the same mistakes I did.”
This year has been a rough one for Rachel. One of her closest friends, whom she met on the streets of Nashville six years ago, passed away unexpectedly. Having to leave work for the funeral, plus the visit she paid to her friend who was struggling with the high-risk pregnancy, led to her parting ways with her job at Waffle House. Although Rachel is a hard worker, she found herself unable to “check her baggage at the door.” She still speaks fondly of her boss and takes responsibility for her struggles with the position.
Women who live on the streets are highly vulnerable. When asked what advice she would give to people who are in the same place she once was, Rachel pauses and stares at the table, deep in thought.
“Stick together,” she says. “Don’t do each other wrong. Don’t take from those who need it just as much as you do. Recognize that you’re not the problem, you’re a symptom of the problem. No matter what anybody tells you, it’s not your fault. And you can get out of it. It’s just going to take some time and some effort and some determination. And it’s hard. It’s so, so difficult. But it’s doable. Until then, make a camping trip out of it. Have some fun.”
Dedicated to Richie Andino, 1992-2019
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