There might be small, attainable, ideas which could helpfully impact local homeless issues. There are large ideas which could potentially help end the homeless crisis in our city, though they are less obtainable. Residents and business owners need help immediately.
These were the threads that ran through two 1 1/2-hour sessions hosted by the United Way. Billed as a morning meeting for business owners and an evening meeting for residents, the Knoxville Area Rescue Mission presented a small idea they hope might have a positive impact.
Burt Rosen, CEO of KARM, began by saying, “You see what we see every day.” He said that during a walk he saw a man and a woman, sharing a needle and injecting it into each other’s neck. He said on walks he sees human feces, rotting food feeding rodents and empty needles. He referred to “Broadway Beach,” the strip of Broadway from the I-40 overpass and talked about the chairs along the sidewalk and the increasing number of carts filled with precious possessions.
Noting that continuing to do the same things will render the same results, he said KARM began thinking in terms of barriers to getting help. They got a small grant from the Trinity Health Foundation of East Tennessee to explore how they might remove one small barrier: storage of possessions.
They learned that rather than leave their possessions to be plundered, many of the homeless population would be willing to miss an appointment, job interview, or to receive shelter for the night. They found that the most precious possessions were “those that made them human,” including family photographs, or perhaps a Bible. They reasoned if those possessions could be safely stored, perhaps more of the population would seek heath.
A focus group intended to be somewhat representative of the local homeless population said they would like a safe place to keep their possessions (all items banned from KARM, such as weapons and drugs would not be allowed). They said they would be willing to have the possessions searched and to work with a case worker, attend help sessions or classes or do small tasks in order to pay for the storage. The idea has been tried with some success in other cities.
Calling the safety of possessions, a barrier to getting more help, KARM would hope the engagement with a case worker could be the first step toward those involved getting more significant help. The storage space could be in a new structure, somewhere inside the KARM courtyard, or in an existing building like the former Concourse on Blackstock.
The group cited an estimate that 40% of the people we see on the street are truly homeless and 60% of those we think are homeless are preying on the homeless. They said they would hope that if they can get this group, however small it might be, off the street with their possessions secured, they would hope that many of the predators would move on.
After the presentation at each of the meetings, the groups gathered were asked what they were seeing and what they thought about the idea. The morning group, intended to be more business owners, responded most vehemently of the two groups.
Liza Zenni of the Arts and Cultural Alliance located in the Emporium Building on the 100 block of Gay Street said, “We are seeing more mentally ill wandering into the Emporium, threatening employees and artists.” She said she doesn’t know how to access social workers and is at loss as to how to help the individuals and protect her employees. Shawn Griffith, a city Homeless Program Coordinator suggested a call to the city co-responder team (a police officer paired with a social worker). Councilwoman Lauren Rider added that city council voted the previous night to increase the teams from one to four.
A gentleman who said he has worked near the intersection of Central and Broadway for fifty years said he is seeing things he has never seen before. He mentioned human feces, fires, needles, and a break-in two nights previous. He said there is urine on cars, food scattered on the ground and that every morning he reports to work to pick up “sixty to eighty needles.” He said we need something more proactive and that he is afraid people are going to leave downtown.
Chris Martin, Founder and President of the Knoxville Leadership Foundation, was one of the few present at each meeting. He said the “elephant in the room” is addition and drugs. He said when someone shoots up, they exhibit the worst behaviors we are seeing and that often homelessness is a symptom of addiction.
In response to whether the audience felt the number of homeless individuals is increasing, most people said “yes.” Shawn Griffith said the annual census, a thorough count of the homeless that is conducted locally, but part of a national effort, continues to show Knoxville has plateaued at about 800 for several years and that it was higher before that. The difference is that more are unsheltered and, it appears, the drugs currently being used are producing more brazen behavior. There are also more who are declining shelter.
At each meeting various participants pointed out that this isn’t a larger solution and that many, such as active addicts, may not participate. KARM representatives agreed, saying this was not to help everyone, it was to help those for whom protection of their property is a barrier to getting help. It requires engagement with case workers and isn’t intended to make living on the street easier or to become long-term storage.
Bruce Spangler, CEO of the Volunteer Ministry Center, said that this idea deals with the issue at the micro level and the larger question, to him, is what kind of system creates these levels of mental illness and drug addiction? He (and many others) pointed to the closure of Lakeshore as a negative turning point locally. He added that, to protect their property, the VMC has recently been forced to erect a fence.
Geoff Yearack said he and his wife own four businesses in the area and have lived in Emory Place for the last three years. He said it was a dream when they moved there, but it has become a nightmare. He said they can see it deteriorating and asked for help from the groups who work with the homeless. He said there needs to be compassion for the homeless, but support for businesses. He asked why other cities he visits don’t seem to have as much problem and noted that when he brought in two separate groups on business recently, after one night in the city, they each asked him why there are so many homeless people.
One person described seeing two cars that park in the same place on Fifth Avenue every day and sell drugs and prostitutes. He asked if we can see this so easily and clearly, why can’t the police?
Joe Petre, who has been developing properties around downtown for thirty years, said the problem has grown. He said that for development to continue, there needs to be change and pointed to the huge foundational money available locally. He said he supports the services offered, but feels we are not providing the “best place.”
Councilwoman Lauren Rider spoke at length at each meeting, expressing her frustration at the city being asked to do something that will require county, state and national buy-in. She said funding for both housing and treatment are needed and those are so expensive, it will take more than the city budget.
She pointed out that the currently accepted number is that we need 500 supportive housing units to get people off the street and that those units cost and average of $175,000 each. The city doesn’t have the money. She expressed frustration that Lakeshore was closed and that the state refused Medicaid expansion, which would have helped. She said the police are also frustrated because they have no options to get help for addicts and the mentally ill.
As for downtown and near downtown residents, they told similar stories. One woman said she could show anyone interested six camps in the downtown area. Laurens Tullock said behind the Regas building there are open drug sales, drug use, and prostitution, saying it is worst on Sundays when the predators are waiting after the free meal and haircuts provided by Care Cuts.
Chris Martin said that he has lived in Mechanicsville for 35 years and has never seen some of the things he is seeing now. He said alleys and empty houses are being taken over by homeless people and he’s seeing a higher level of violence than he’s seen before.
Numerous residents said that dignity is very important as any project, including the storage project moves forward. Still, without treatment and available housing, any true help is difficult. Councilwoman Amelia Parker said the Metro Drug Coalition is “working on a proposal to expand our zoning code to allow for more drug treatment/recovery centers.” She suggested “that those could be located in residential neighborhoods,” but said, “I do not yet know whether that will be included in MDC’s proposal.” (Ed. Note: This paragraph was updated for clarification after a FB comment from Councilwoman Parker.)
A general discussion of the possibility of using COVID relief money to help, as well as the money from the pharmacy settlements, led Michael Dunthorn, Homeless Program Coordinator, to say those plans are already in motion. He also made a statement advocating supportive housing. He said the cost of providing supportive housing is cheaper in the long run than having the same people repeatedly cycle through the system. He said agencies are working together to provide help.