Homeless meeting brings facts, debate

Scores of homeless persons gather each day “under the bridge” on Broadway at the Interstate 40 overpass. Some of the largest providers of homeless services in Knoxville are within walking distance of this spot, as are several campsites. Photo by J.J. Stambaugh.

All hands were on deck Thursday for Knoxville City Council’s first workshop on homelessness in several years.  

Not much was decided during the six-hour meeting, but representatives from about a dozen different agencies painted a detailed picture of the community’s response to the hundreds of homeless people sleeping in its streets. 

Although the meeting showed the level of tight cooperation between the City and social service providers, it also showed sharp differences of opinion about how homeless encampments should be handled. 

Not for the first time, Councilwoman Amelia Parker demanded to know why the city isn’t using federal money to house homeless men and women instead of destroying their campsites.   

“How does chasing people all over the city with bulldozers help people?” Parker asked city officials. “It doesn’t make any sense.”   

Stephanie Welch, the City’s chief economic and community development officer, told Parker it was clear that she couldn’t answer her question satisfactorily. 

“This is an issue that we are struggling with as a city,” Welch said. “I’m not sure what else after four-and-a-half hours I can say.” 

Parker has long advocated that homeless encampments should be left alone by the City unless the intent is to better their occupants’ lives by providing toilets, water, and other necessities. She has also pushed for the city to take advantage of available funds from FEMA to put the homeless up in hotel rooms until the Covid-19 pandemic is over. 

Becky Wade, housing and development director, explained there is no guarantee FEMA will reimburse the city for all expenses. In order to qualify for the funds, the City will have to prove that the money is necessary to limit the spread of Covid-19 in the homeless population, she said. 

During the public comment period, Senior Attorney Tristia Bauman of the National Homelessness Law Center informed council members that breaking up homeless camps should only be done after a careful evaluation of the pros and cons.  

“Sweeps done without a plan have universally failed across the country… and undermine the other good work being done in Knoxville,” she said. 

People should not be forced out of camps unless there are immediate housing options, she explained. Just sending them back out into the community with no place to go “is not a good thing for anyone,” she said. 

The main lesson brought home during Thursday’s marathon meeting was that there is a desperate shortage of housing options. 

Since the mid 2000’s, the City and its partner agencies have based all their efforts on the “Housing First” model, which has” proven effective in cities across the country. 

The model doesn’t require people who are homeless to jump through hoops or prove they are stable before they are allowed into housing.  Instead, they are placed into permanent supportive housing where their problems can be treated without the constant fear and instability of living on the streets. 

Knoxville has 541 fewer units of permanent supportive housing than it currently needs, according to Chris Martin, who heads Knoxville Leadership Foundation.  

Martin’s agency operates Flenniken Landing, a permanent supportive housing facility for formerly chronic homeless individuals.

Martin recalled how local politics has killed off many proposed housing facilities. “Communities love what we are doing but they don’t want it near them,” Martin said. “It’s the NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) thing.” 

Like all public government meetings during the CV-19 pandemic, Thursday’s City Council workshop on homelessness was conducted virtually.

When the Housing First model was adopted during the administration of former Mayor Bill Haslam, many neighborhoods were unwilling to allow the formerly homeless into their community.  

“We need political will,” he said. “At some point we need to have these happen without having a long-protracted battle.”  

Matt Tillery, who works for the Knox County Development Corporation and heads Knox County Homeless Coalition, pointed out how hard it is to fully programs that keep people housed and opening housing opportunities. Many of those programs are funded by grants that narrowly define “homelessness” and only allow for funds to be used for specific purposes. 

Councilman Tommy Smith expressed frustration that the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development strictly defines someone as enduring “chronic homelessness” in ways that can keep them from getting help if, for instance, they sleep on a friend’s couch for a few nights.

“Temporary housing can delay access to long term housing,” Smith said.

During the public comment period, several residents thanked the council members and speakers for caring enough about the issue to sit through a six-hour educational workshop.

Brady Watson, for instance, said its evident that officials want solutions that demonstrate empathy for the people affected. Unfortunately, such concern isn’t always evident to the people on the streets who feel the sharp end of the City’s policies every time a homeless camp is shut down.

Watson said that one person who was caught up in a Thursday morning clearing operation later described losing his belongings when the police moved in.

“They said I had 10 minutes, and when I said that wasn’t enough time they said I had two minutes,” the man reportedly told Watson. “I just lost all my stuff including all that food I just bought.”

Jennifer Stambaugh contributed to this article.

J.J. Stambaugh can be reached 865-243-4768.

Published on March 19, 2021