Knoxville’s solution to a longstanding homeless camp in the city has caused much controversy, but the lack of coordination between community partners lies at the root of the issue.
By: Allie Clouse
Among the rising downtown condos and the thriving local neighborhoods of Knoxville, one of the highest-growth areas in Tennessee, thousands of people are homeless.
Multiple local agencies offer much-needed services, but the problems at the root of homelessness are often even harder to resolve, as evidenced by Knoxville’s most recent controversy — a day park project to be located under an overpass on Broadway where many people who are homeless reside.
The causes of homelessness are diverse, as are the needs of the homeless: 15.9 percent of people who were homeless in Knoxville blamed eviction for their situation in 2018, a rise of 7 percent since 2016, according to the most recent report published by the Knoxville Homeless Management Information System (KnoxHMIS), an information portal used by the city’s Office on Homelessness.
“Being evicted makes it harder to get into housing,” acknowledges Michael Dunthorn, homeless program coordinator of Knoxville’s Office on Homelessness.
In fact, a recent report by the city of Knoxville says that “89 percent of evictees experienced significant struggles finding an affordable place to rent, and while former evictees believed it would take up to 30 days to find new housing, the median actual search time was 52 days.”
Danita McCartney, vice president of development at Knoxville Area Rescue Mission (KARM), operates a shelter beside the overpass where the day park is to be built.
“From the beginning, when talks started about the situation under the bridge, we have been in constant contact with Mike Dunthorn … The city wanted to make sure that they were not being counterproductive to any programs that we offer, so we submitted a proposal of some solutions that we thought would be a good working plan,” McCartney said.
But she says, KARM’s plan didn’t include another courtyard.
“KARM stands firm that we want to be a part of the solution. We feel strongly though that we have a courtyard here. So we’ll be supportive, but we were hopeful that there could have been a different solution … The city has been very accommodating and sought out our opinions on what we would like to see happen, but it would be nice if they would consider now that it is cleared out, see if there would be a waiting period to see if that is needed,” McCartney said.
KARM, and other agencies in Knoxville, like The Restoration House, have strict rules about who can participate in their programs. However, many people who are homeless are either ineligible or unprepared to take on the structure required by these agencies and struggle to receive help and return to stable housing.
Gabrielle Cline, chief clinical services officer of Volunteer Ministry Center (VMC) and president of Knoxville Knox County Homeless Coalition, is the primary social worker for the park project and provides street outreach services to the downtown area including under the bridge.
“Most people report that they cannot afford housing and that this is the cause of their homelessness,” Cline said in an interview. “Often people leave a place that they cannot afford and will move in with friends. Then they move around and eventually become homeless.”
Getting back on track is often nearly impossible.
“There is no place to apply to that will accept a person with very limited income, poor credit history and sometimes legal issues,” Cline said.
In all likelihood, she says, numbers for evictions are underreported.
“People will often leave housing because a landlord gives them a notice that is not actually an eviction – so that makes it quite hard to track. For example, a person gets behind on rent then their landlord issues a notice to pay up or eviction will be initiated so the person moves out without an eviction,” Cline said.
Requirements set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) can limit the ability of local organizations to help the homeless. VMC’s primary mission, for example, is to get the homeless into secure housing, but other entities like the Helen Ross McNabb Center have a broader mandate to address mental and physical health.
Without a coordinated system that addresses all the problems in tandem, permanent housing can remain elusive.
“The community has initiated a coordinated entry process which prioritizes helping those who are most vulnerable first. [This is a] HUD requirement. This means that the vast majority of our clients have mental health and/or substance abuse issues that can also contribute to their homelessness. What this can mean is that people might get arrested and then lose their housing because they go to jail,” Cline says.
That there is controversy surrounding Knoxville’s homeless budget is no secret. The official plan to address homelessness says, “As a mid-sized American city, Knoxville is not unique or alone in struggling with the issue of homelessness … In 2006, Knoxville joined that nationwide effort and began implementing its own Ten-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness. Much was achieved through that effort, but not without continued challenges and considerable controversy.”
Cline agrees that Knoxville’s challenge is a large one that is shared by communities across the country. Cline says that affordable housing and underlying social problems lie at the root of the issue.
“The city is doing a lot of work to try to expand the affordable housing stock, which is a great start. However, developing new affordable housing takes time. I also think the lack of adequate access to mental health, substance abuse treatment and living wage jobs is a problem.”