Knox Area Rescue Mission: Offering a Path Forward for Many Who Have Lost Their Way

Knox Area Rescue Ministries, Broadway, Knoxville, November 2021
Knox Area Rescue Ministries, Broadway, Knoxville, November 2021

I was invited to join Danita McCartney, President of Knox Area Rescue Ministries for a tour of their massive facility on Broadway to get an understanding of the work they do. The ministry has been around Fifth Avenue since it was founded in 1960 by area ministers and has maintained its Christian principals as it has sought to help others. From that have grown some misconceptions, including the requirements for staying at the mission. In the popular imagination, the mission is a place where homeless people simply eat and sleep.

Services start with the courtyard, which is available to anyone and is intended to be a safe space with some shelter. Charging stations are available for cell phones and wheelchairs. There are bathrooms, groups can meet, and sometimes concessions are offered. It was near empty when I toured, but I was told it was because it was lunch time. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served each day at the mission. They sometimes have “City Nights” in which the courtyard is open evenings until late, primarily geared to the street homeless who will not enter the building. Coffee, snacks, sandwiches, and more is offered during these events.

Crossroads is the intake program, just inside the door from the courtyard. An intake assessment is completed to determine what services may be needed. No appointment is required, and a line was formed while we walked through. Needs may range from a place to stay, a job, or a need to get a driver’s license. It is open all day except for lunch.

Brian, Knox Area Rescue Ministries, Broadway, Knoxville, November 2021

One person asked that I take his picture up close. He told me he came directly here from West Virginia on a bicycle, for work. He said he was doing electronics and now does restorations, but was recently hit by a drunk driver and is currently in a wheelchair. He said the mission was “helping me out a lot getting re-established and in three weeks I should be in an apartment.” Brian said he has a video showing his ride across the U.S. on his bicycle. I couldn’t find the video, but I found this news story about Brian that gives more of his back story.

For those entering and wanting to build a fresh start, a first step might be a program called “LaunchPoint.” In that program, selected residents of the men’s and women’s dorms attend a range of classes on topics such as mental, physical, and financial health, as well as addiction and trauma. They set and post attainable goals such as the ones you see here in the photographs. In addition to the skills, they learn in the four-week program, they also begin to make connections to others. On the last Friday of each month a new class graduates.

Care coordinators have offices off a small waiting area. There are phones for use, a computer lab, and a provision for people to have their mail delivered. Outside counselors come in from Helen Ross McNabb and they have offices off the small waiting area, as well.

There is a large laundry facility and bedding from each dorm gets washed every day. It starts at 7:00 am after all beds are stripped and disinfected. They wash about 350 sets of bedding each day. The women’s dorm (pictured here) has room for about 100 each night, while the men’s dorm has about 120 beds.

Knox Area Rescue Ministries, Broadway, Knoxville, November 2021
Knox Area Rescue Ministries, Broadway, Knoxville, November 2021
Knox Area Rescue Ministries, Broadway, Knoxville, November 2021
Knox Area Rescue Ministries, Broadway, Knoxville, November 2021

They also provide availability for some medical support. The Care Center, which has its own outside entrance, was created for a triage of sorts to reduce some of the 911 calls that originate from the surrounding area. Sometimes the response is as simple as checking their blood sugar levels and reacting accordingly. As a dual responder city, each call can bring a fire engine as well as an ambulance and a false call is extremely wasteful of resources.

It is still evolving, but nursing students and others have come in to staff it and give flu shots and more. Mobile mammography and dental services, and more have been provided.  The service is available to anyone who walks in, whether they are part of other KARM programs. Telehealth services are also offered in a specially equipped room. Peninsula Hospital and Remote Area Medical are also partners in the project.

Todd Gilbert of KARM told me that about 5,000 911 calls were made from the block each year and less than 2% of those constituted an emergency. About 2,100 of those calls were made by KARM employees on behalf of others and the rest were from private phones. With on-site medical support and evaluation, they have been able to cut their calls by about half. They hope to continue reducing the numbers as they develop the Care Center further.

Additionally, the transitional or “respite” care center is offered through a grant from the Trinity Health Foundation in partnership with Covenant Health, who staffs it. It offers post-hospital type care for those who need care after surgery. They can stay four-to-six weeks in a clean environment and can get bandages changed, medications managed, and more, keeping them safer from infection on the street. Covenant’s home health team comes to the facility (of eight beds) for follow-up. It is also often an opportunity to get the men (it is only male at this point) into additional programs to help them get off the street.

Todd Gilbert provided me with statistics regarding the Respite Center. He said 86 men have used the facility in the last three years. He added, “Typically, those who enroll into our respite unit are high utilizers of emergency service, yet we’ve only had 61 calls to 911 from those occupying the unit.” The 86 men account for 4500 total bed-nights.

Knox Area Rescue Ministries, Broadway, Knoxville, November 2021
Knox Area Rescue Ministries, Broadway, Knoxville, November 2021

They also have a series of construction projects underway inside the building. One will make for a better entry with an area for queuing in line for meals. It will provide shelter for those waiting and eliminate the lines from the sidewalks. A massive renovation of the dining area is also underway, making it brighter, more modern, and more hospitable. Men’s bathrooms are being updated and improved. New, more functional spaces are also being constructed for some of the services. They call the renovation project, “Operation Dignity.”

The interior of the building is used for other functions, as well. The chapel or assembly area is open to anyone on “white flag,” or inclement weather days and it was filled when I was there due to the rain. The space is also used for programs presented by outside groups, such a small Broadway (the NY Broadway) performances by local acting groups, jazz by local musicians, or performances by Knoxville Opera and others. She said they feel it is important to include the arts as a part of their lives.

The kitchen is not only where meals are prepared it is also a training kitchen, as well as a catering kitchen. The training program is called “Abundant Life,” and is available to those in the Berea Program (more on that below). Residents completing that course get their Servsafe certificate which provides training in safe food practices. The focus is employment possibilities. Catering is offered for sale to outside groups.

Liz Galloway is the Director of Food Services. She said the training program they offer is twelve weeks in the kitchen, followed by a four-week internship outside the mission. She said they partner with the Knoxville Convention Center, All Occasions Rentals and area restaurants. She said they provide almost 1,000 meals each day. Seven students are currently underway in the program.

They will soon add a food truck to train in that kind of food delivery. Money generated from the catering returns to the program to purchase uniforms for the students, knife sets that they receive upon graduation, and to pay for the Servsafe training. The food truck will also give them the opportunity to provide food to people in surrounding areas who may not be able to make it to Karm from their camps, for example. It offers another way to offer help and hope to bring them in to services at the mission.

Knox Area Rescue Ministries, Broadway, Knoxville, November 2021
Transitional Care, Knox Area Rescue Ministries, Broadway, Knoxville, November 2021

The Berea Program is the “development” program within KARM. Primarily reserved for graduates of LaunchPoint, the co-ed residential program is designed to help residents take responsibility for themselves and to begin the transition to more healthy independent living. There is room for forty-four residents and the model is inspired by that at Berea College. The residents are expected to work, learn, serve, and live. Those in this program live in dorm-style facilities, mostly two residents to a room, which include a private bathroom for each room. They have a nice sitting area, as well as a work-out area. There are currently thirty-six residents in this program and applications for new members are currently being considered.

Two graduating classes have made it through the 200 hours of classes, including money, life skills, addiction, anger management and more. February will mark graduation of the third class, and it will be held at Jackson Terminal. There are 200 hours of expected work to be performed at KARM. Thirty-six hours of community service is expected outside the walls of KARM. Throughout the time in the program, the group is also learning to live in a healthy community. The day I visited, eighteen of the students had taken a multi-day trip to Franklin, Tennessee to stay on a farm there, simply for the variety of experiences. The farm is owned by Amy Grant and group took their hand at writing songs they then shared.

The program typically takes six-to-nine months to complete. They’ve had people leave the program, employed sufficiently to pay for their own housing without even the use of vouchers. They are working toward employment of care coordinators to follow-up with the graduates.

Danita introduced me to Tony Harris, Director of Emergency Services and Michael Spence, Director of Outreach. In response to the community perception that staying in the facility is very restrictive, Mr. Harris said, “Our restrictions are extremely limited. If we can identify who you are . . . and you cannot be a sex offender, as dictated by Tennessee law . . . and be able to care for yourself. We are not an assisted living and don’t have the staffing to deal with extreme cases of people who can’t care for themselves. We work with other agencies and hospitals to get a better placement if that is a case.”

Within the walls, the rules, he said, are simply that guests cannot assault staff or others and they cannot use drugs on the property. He estimated that 20% to 30% of those staying there have addiction issues and 70% have some type of mental health issue. “We are the only homeless shelter in the state of Tennessee that is taking people from Moccasin Bend Mental Health Hospital in Chattanooga.” He said they also take in people from Peninsula and Helen Ross McNabb.

Danita McCartney Discusses Operation Dignity, Knox Area Rescue Ministries, Broadway, Knoxville, November 2021
Dining Hall Under Construction, Knox Area Rescue Ministries, Broadway, Knoxville, November 2021

Michael Spence, who leads the chapel services at the mission, said there is no religious requirement for staying at the facility, including attendance at services. He said they provide an alternative space for guests to wait if they don’t want to attend chapel services. He continued,

It’s simple: We just love people. I don’t care who you are. I don’t care how bad you smell. I don’t care what you just did for your fix. We love you. Universal hope is love and that’s what we share here. We’re not making anyone do anything, we’re not brainwashing anybody, we just love people unconditionally.

He added that even if someone uses drugs or does something else to get removed, it is simply a suspension, they are not barred long-term. “It puts a person in a position that they need to come talk to us.” The suspension is lifted after the conversation either by allowing them to stay there or go elsewhere for help.

The group makes it clear they there is drug use all around the area of the mission and they know it, though off their property, they have no enforcement power. Danita said they had three overdoses just the day before on the street outside. Michael said, “Since March I’ve done 24 overdose interventions with Narcan on the street and in our courtyard.”

Knox Area Rescue Ministries, Broadway, Knoxville, November 2021
Berea Program, Knox Area Rescue Ministries, Broadway, Knoxville, November 2021
Berea Program, Knox Area Rescue Ministries, Broadway, Knoxville, November 2021
Berea Program, Knox Area Rescue Ministries, Broadway, Knoxville, November 2021

He said he considers the drug use many times worse since the pandemic hit, largely because of the loss of in-person support. They also see the increased anger and aggressiveness, but feel it is simply a spillover of the anger being expressed all over the country. Michael also confirmed that many of the panhandlers are not homeless but are doing well making money on the street. The group reiterated that money should not be given out on the street.

The consensus I heard was that more treatment options are needed, particularly for men. There are more options for women, but they said if a male wants to begin recovery today and has no insurance, there is no place in Knoxville for him to turn. They feel detox for males is the single most needed service that we are missing.

Danita added, “There are quality recovery programs that are embedded in many urban missions across the country.” She said they refer individuals to Denver, Indianapolis, Baltimore, and other places to get them help. “We do long-term recovery for females, but we know we need a long-term recovery for males. We haven’t found the space yet.” She said the location must be removed from the area around the mission because, as they saw a decade ago when they had a program, it was simply too difficult for them to avoid the dealers just outside the door.

The building includes 85,000 square feet, with only one program off-site, that being the Serenity ministries which is long-term residential program for women, housing about 33 women in their eighteen-month program. They are also looking at adding a temporary housing facility specifically for women and children.

Women’s Dorm, Knox Area Rescue Ministries, Broadway, Knoxville, November 2021
Sitting Area off Women’s Dorm, Knox Area Rescue Ministries, Broadway, Knoxville, November 2021

There are eight-five staff members. 62% of the funding comes from private, direct donor support, including churches grants. Thirty-eight percent of the funding comes from “income-producing businesses that include 22 Thrift stores,” as well as the catering mentioned above.

Eighty-nine percent of the money “goes directly for program services – things that directly impact and benefit our guests and residents.” Eight percent is spent on fund-raising, and three percent is spent on “management and administration.”  It should be noted that much of the food served at KARM is donated from area grocery stores and restaurants. She said, for example they are partners with seven area Chick-fil-a locations who donate food. She said KARM enjoys tremendous community support.