NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — It was the two plastic shopping bags that gave it away, they sat next to her on two chairs with a few empty soda bottles poking through the top. If it weren’t for those two plastic bags I never would’ve known that Debbie Williams was homeless.
Like the way she admittedly lives her life, Debbie Williams was doing her best to blend in with her surroundings inside Nashville’s Farmers Market on a recent Monday.
She tried not to stick out as she sought refuge from the cold winter’s rain that was falling outside. The lunchtime crowd had mostly disappeared. Leaving the 63-year-old sitting alone at the end of a long row of tables. Debbie’s bare feet were sitting on top of her white sneakers which were slowly drying out from the rain outside. She clutched a small, black Bible in her hands as she began to unravel the story of how she became homeless.
“I’ve been outside a lot. Last week when it was cold I prayed that it wouldn’t snow,” Debbie Williams said with a smile you wouldn’t expect from someone in her situation.
It started in 1995, Debbie was working on her PhD in mathematics at Vanderbilt University. A small series of financial mistakes lead to her losing her scholarship money. Eventually she was forced to drop out of school.
“I still had the Vandy parking decal on my car. I remember one day just going up to the window and having to scrape it off. That was it, the end,” Debbie said about the day she became homeless.
The specific details of what happened next, Debbie Williams tended to dodge. But for the last two decades this Albany, Georgia native hasn’t had a place to call home. Her nights are spent at the Nashville Rescue Mission, a homeless shelter about three miles from the Farmers Market.
And Debbie Williams isn’t alone. Although city officials struggle to get an exact figure, most estimates put Nashville’s homeless population near 3,000 people and rising. Even at a time when the city is experiencing unprecedented growth.
“The poor are being pushed out and the wealthy are coming in. Things have changed,” she added.
With no income and no money for the bus, Debbie Williams walks a few miles every day. Every morning she makes the trip to the Farmers Market after the Rescue Mission closes. Her feet are tired, “But I’m thankful for my legs. Even on the days when it’s raining sometimes, I look to God and say, ‘It’s okay, I can do this.’”
Everything she owns fits inside the two plastic shopping bags. It’s the easiest way to move from place to place.
“I’ve been reduced to being the bag lady I guess,” she admitted.
When the Nashville Farmers Market opened 30-years-ago, city planners likely didn’t intend for it to become a temporary refuge for people like Debbie Williams. Thousands of people pass through the space each week. Most are state employees getting a sandwich from the Gyro shop or a pulled pork platter from the popular bar-b-que joint. Light pours in through the massive glass roof. The entire structure is about a block long. Its cement halls are lined with shops and restaurants.
Perhaps most importantly though for Debbie Williams, “It’s a place to use the restroom, hotels, places like that don’t really want you coming in there.”
Which is why Debbie Williams likes it here. She doesn’t panhandle. Instead, she typically just read her bible and every so often a stranger will notice her and buy her a meal.
“Every once in a while, people will take pity on me. There are nice people here during lunch that when I go up to get something, they’ll offer to pay. Not all people are cold,” she said.
And that is why Debbie Williams keeps coming back.