Open Letter From Downtown Resident Regarding Homeless Death

Broadway Under the Viaduct, Knoxville, November 2016
Broadway Under the Viaduct, Knoxville, November 2016

This past weekend, I received a text containing a copy of an email sent to, among others, Mayor Kincannon, Councilwoman Gwen McKenzie (6th District Councilperson), Betsy Henderson (6th district school board member), Mayor Jacobs, Becky Wade (Housing and Neighborhood Development, Charles Lomax (Community Empowerment Director), Michael Dunthorn (Homeless Program Director for the city of Knoxville),  and Shawn Griffith (Homeless Program Director for the City of Knoxville). By Tuesday evening she had gotten one response, from Charles Lomax, who called her and promised to follow up.

I found the letter compelling, heartfelt, and representative of views I’ve heard other downtown residents express. I asked to meet her to learn more about her background. She agreed to meet and to allow me to publish her letter.

Nikki is originally from Indiana, but moved to Sevier County years ago. She’s lived in South Knoxville with her husband and her two children (three when his child joins them on weekends) for eleven years, but moved into a downtown home in September 2020. She said they have loved coming downtown for years and really wanted to live in the center city to be able to walk to restaurants, music, and parks. Her accounting business has been located downtown for the last 2 1/2 years.

Even before they moved downtown, they not only enjoyed it, but they engaged the local homeless population. She recounts a story of Christmas two years ago in which the family spent the morning assembling about 100 bags of of food and water, which they handed out under the I-40 overpass. It was also, unfortunately, the day she and one of her sons first saw people shooting up on the street.

Flowers and a Homeless Man Dozing, Knoxville, April 2017

Her perception of the homeless situation has shifted in the last year as she’s watched the panhandling and aggressiveness increase. She was followed from a downtown parking garage to her home by one homeless person and the family has had other incidents. The experiences of the last year prompted her to write the letter below:

Good afternoon,

I am a resident and business owner in Downtown Knoxville and am in the current class of Introduction Knoxville. This past Tuesday, 9/14, our class met at the Square Room in Market Square, of which we were to be there by 7:45am. As I walked in between Café 4 and Tomato Head bright and early, I passed a homeless man lying in front of a wheelchair sleeping. Knowing I am one of very few people in my Introduction Knoxville class that live in the city, I couldn’t help but think to myself – I hate that the first impression of the city and of Market Square that my fellow classmates had is that of having to awkwardly walk by a homeless person sleeping on the ground.

Fast forward to after 1pm that day and as we walked out of the Square Room there were police everywhere and the homeless man is covered with black plastic – because he actually wasn’t sleeping, he was dead. I wonder how long he was lying on the ground until someone finally realized he wasn’t sleeping. And what’s so sad for someone like me, is that I see so many homeless people sleeping on the ground throughout Downtown Knoxville, the thought that they might actually be dead has never crossed my mind.

Let’s fast forward to this past Thursday, 9/16 – I’m at the designated bus stop, the Tennessee Theatre, with my 4th grader who attends Sequoyah Elementary waiting for the bus at 7:05am. My son is very nervous around homeless people due to seeing them act out whether due to drugs or mental health issues over the last year we have lived downtown. The picture below is of my son (Ed. note: I decided to exclude the photograph of her son) on 9/16 waiting for the bus. Please look closer at the picture and notice the white object behind the glass case. That is a homeless person’s feet. I couldn’t help but wonder – are they sleeping or are they dead? I kept my son’s attention on other things so he didn’t realize there was a homeless person sleeping at his bus stop – the bus stop the school system designated for us.

I am approached by a homeless person at least several times a week, whether it is asking for money, for food, asking where I got my dress or shoes, or to tell me three times in a matter of 30 seconds that they are from California. I not only have a nine year old son, but I also have a 17 year old son that works downtown after school/on the weekends and walks home at dark after his shift is over. The increase in our homeless population makes me nervous for my 17 year old to walk alone at night.

We have also witnessed an assault at 1pm in the afternoon, on Gay Street, and sadly one of our children saw it. My family should not be fearful while walking outside, be worried with having a homeless person sleeping on the stairs of our building, or seeing a couple sleeping naked on the ground in front of the First Presbyterian Church (yes – this happened and it was right outside my kitchen window).

I am emailing you all today to ask what are you doing, as our elected local government officials, to help the homeless population in Knoxville? What programs are available to help the mentally ill, and ones with addiction problems? We cannot continue to rely solely on KARM, VMC and the local churches. It is not enough.

Also, what can I do to help? Who can I talk to?


Nikki Elliot

After my original draft of this article, Nikki contacted me to say she had heard from and had good conversations with Captain Don Jones, from the KPD, who mentioned new downtown efforts involving camera monitoring on businesses and a daytime cadet who will be moving around around the downtown area. Jenny Holden, from the Knox County Commercial Development Office (on behalf of the County Mayor) who said the county has allocated money and is working toward increased psychiatric beds. Burt Rosen, President of KARM called and shared concerns. As a result of some of the above, Nikki is joining a committee and participating in relevant meetings.

It seems the city needs to have some hard conversations. She made it clear that she remains committed to downtown and to making the city a better place. We need to help those who need help. We also need to feel safe in our downtown neighborhood and be able to live and work in a way that invites continued growth. More people need to add their voices to the conversation.