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GIVING TILL IT HURTS: Homeless advocate Jason Bennett

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MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (WMOT)  --  Homelessness is on the rise in Middle Tennessee. Metro Nashville recently reported that the number of homeless individuals in the city jumped nearly 10 percent last year.

Advocates say Rutherford County is seeing a similar rise in homelessness. WMOT News Director Mike Osborne recently had a chance to spend a few hours with a Murfreesboro homeless advocate who is determined to see those numbers decline.

Jason Bennett was out early on a recent Sunday morning, shuttling a homeless veteran across town. His beat up old van is so full of supplies for the homeless, it’s hard to find a place to sit. It’s raining and the windshield wipers beat time as Bennett and a homeless mid-state vet named Ray talk quietly and laugh often in the front seats.

Moments later Bennett pulls into Murfreesboro’s VA hospital.  He’s been trying to get Ray to agree to come here for days. Bennett says the vet has been walking around town on cracked and bleeding feet for a couple of weeks.

Bennett wishes Ray luck as he steps out of the van. Ray quietly replies, “I’m gonna’ need it,” before he limps into the hospital.

Jason Bennett’s been helping Murfreesboro’s homeless for several years now, specifically with the couple of hundred people who live out of doors. He has a regular 40 hour a week daytime job, and then works nearly as many hours evenings and weekends with the homeless. It’s a passion borne of personal experience. Bennett was homeless himself for a time in the late 90s.

“I was homeless for about six months in the woods in Lake City, Florida, by myself,” he explained.  “I had a guitar, a fishing pole, a little bitty tent, boots, coveralls, and I was good.”

Bennett bristles a bit at the way most people treat the homeless, either abusing them, throwing money at them, or ignoring them altogether. He says the only way to really help is to get to know them.

“We can’t judge and say, this is what did it. They’re not working. They’re lazy. You can’t do that. We have to get to know them. There’s no way, apart from knowing who they are and what made them what they are today. You just got to spend time with people,” he insisted.

Bennett’s next stop is homeless camp exactly one mile from the Murfreesboro town square. He walks quickly down a short path through a stand of scraggly trees. A clearing with a couple of small pitched tents opens up in front of him. Bennett and homeless advocate Amber Hampton roust the homeless couple living here out of their sleeping bags with calls of “Good morning, friend” and “We’ve got some food for you.”

A man who calls himself Snow and a woman named Margarita greet Bennett and Hampton with warm hugs. They chatter away, huddled together under an old tarp to stay out of the rain. Margarita is happy to talk about her friend, Jason. She echoes what he says about accepting the homeless where they are.

“He don’t judge us. Other people judge us. They put us down because, you know, we’re homeless. He don’t. He accepts us” Margarita said.

To round out the morning Bennett stops by a breakfast a local church groups serves to the homeless in a city park each Sunday. Conversation around the table reflects the unique concerns of the homeless. They talk about how best to heat a tent without burning it down, and whether Murfreesboro Police can legally make them leave a city park during daylight hours.

Sandra Mason organizes the Sunday morning breakfasts and has known Jason Bennett for some time. She say he’s earned a reputation that allows him to challenge his homeless friends.

“He holds people accountable for certain decisions and things like that. He’s not just going out there and just checking off a box to say ‘Oh, I’ve done this for the homeless today.’ He really cares about moving them forward,” Mason said.

Jason Bennett readily acknowledges that it’s his wife and four children who pay the biggest price for the time he spends away working with the homeless. But he believes Giving Till it Hurts is just part of his Christian calling.

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“The Jesus that I find in the Bible when I read it is what motivates me. Forgiveness is for everybody; restoration, reconciliation. That’s my motivation. That’s my only motivation.”

Bennett’s latest passion is a program called “Cold Patrol.” On nights that fall below freezing, patrol volunteers provide a warm place inside for those homeless who normally resist sleeping in shelters.

You can learn more about the patrol online.

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