In the ruins of a homeless camp near downtown Knoxville that had just been cleared out by police, a new collection of tents went up on a cool Saturday morning in early March.
But this camp wasn’t meant to be someone’s home. The two dozen men and women who erected it made sure that no one could mistake it for an example of poverty or failed social programming.
No, this miniature tent city was the product of anger, disgust, and righteous indignation.
“This is defiance,” said Chris Irwin, a prominent local activist and criminal defense attorney who organized the March 6 protest.
“Where the city tore down tents, we’re putting tents right back up.”
Homelessness has long been one of the most controversial issues in local politics. The human dimension can easily be conveyed through a single photograph, but the complex causes of the problem aren’t grasped so easily.
The end result is conflict, with each side absolutely committed to helping the poorest of the poor and willing to fight over how best to do it.
What the City and its many partners are doing for the homeless, as well as what they should perhaps be doing differently, will be the topic of a City Council workshop set for 4 p.m. today. The workshop will be streamed live on www.ctvkmox.org, or it can be watched on public access cable TV.
“It’s a lie”
In recent years, the debate has become progressively more heated in the wake of the City’s decision to break up a large tent city that had grown up right next to Broadway under the Interstate 40 overpass.
Now, smaller versions of the original tent city “under the bridge” are sprouting up like mushrooms all over Knoxville, their occupants driven away from the densely populated downtown area where most of the social service agencies meant to help them are located.
But whenever an encampment goes up, a countdown begins.
It’s only a matter of time before someone complains about the noise, the smell, the broken bottles and used syringes that accompany the camps. And then it’s only a matter of time before officers from the Knoxville Police Department and other City workers show up to inform the occupants that it’s time to move on.
Critics accuse the City of heartlessly destroying the few things these people have left. They also accuse them of being insensitive to the psychological needs of the men and women who believe that sleeping in one of the camps is their best option.
“Every time they raid one of these, the problem just gets worse,” Irwin told the crowd of fellow protesters who joined him under the bridge for the March 6 “direct action.”
“It’s not like when they break up these sites it ever gets better,” he said. “It’s not like they can break up these sites and then say, ‘Addiction is ended!’ Its a lie.”
Irwin works for the Knox County Public Defender’s office, where he represents poor defendants. He said he’s had many homeless clients and has been shocked by the damage done to their fragile lives by the camp “raids” when their IDs, disability paperwork, and family photos are destroyed.
“It’s our City government acting like it has no empathy, like a sociopath,” he said. “You are entirely too comfortable if you can look at these people and say they need to go.”
City officials, on the other hand, have defended their policies many times and in many contexts.
Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon is a liberal leader who advocates progressive solutions to problems like homelessness. In the last year, the City has funneled more than $6.8 million into evidence-based programs meant to get the homeless into appropriate, permanent housing.
But some things just can’t be tolerated, such as allowing hundreds of people to cram themselves together in Third World conditions all over a modern metropolitan area, officials say. The lack of running water and toilet facilities alone means homeless encampments are public health hazards that can contaminate nearby businesses and residences. They also sometimes lead to an increase in criminal activity.
City officials maintain that camp residents are given advance notice before a clean up happens and care is taken to not destroy valuables.
The City doesn’t actually operate any homeless programs. It instead partners with federal agencies and nonprofits who work directly with the men and women who have nowhere to go except the streets.
“It’s not that easy”
City councilwoman Amelia Parker, a vocal critic of local government’s policies concerning the homeless, said in a recent proposal there were an estimated 300 encampments in the city last year and the most recent data available indicated that nearly 1,100 people in Knoxville were “experiencing unsheltered street homelessness.”
Parker has made several suggestions in recent weeks, such as asking for a review of zoning regulations with the aim of allowing camping. She’s also urged Kincannon and Council to accept emergency federal dollars that would cover the costs of putting homeless people up in hotel rooms until either they find permanent housing or the COVID-19 pandemic ends.
According to Kincannon, the proposal to house the homeless in local hotels is one of the issues that will be addressed at today’s workshop.
While Irwin has emerged as a leader in the movement to stop razing the camps, he’s not the only Knoxville resident working at the street level to change how the City treats the homeless population.
Some Knoxvillians, however, think the City needs to be even more aggressive when it comes to clearing out the camps and arresting homeless people when they become a nuisance.
R. Bentley Marlow, a Mechanicsville resident who owns a company that buys houses in his neighborhood and then fixes them up for sale or rent, has been trying to somehow force the City’s hand for years now.
Marlow, 39, is especially angry at local politicians who live in relatively upscale neighborhoods, insulated from the chaos that even a small group of homeless people can cause.
Early this week, Marlow walked around Mechanicsville and pointed out the many public locations where scores of homeless men and women sleep, defecate, use drugs, and burn down houses.
In fact, he said, three houses within sight of each other have been destroyed by “hobos” in the past couple of years. The fires were apparently accidental, but that doesn’t make the loss easier for property owners who are now out of a house.
The most recent fire gutted a home in the 1300 block of W. Fourth Avenue just a few weeks ago, he said.
“This is just typical of the destruction that’s being caused by the homeless community that the Amelia Parkers of the world want to gloss over and ignore,” he said, pointing out where the heat from the fire also caused damage to the adjacent house. “But somebody’s lost a house, all because of an unlawful trespasser.”
Marlow is furious. He doesn’t understand why KPD officers don’t make more arrests, or why anyone in their right mind would allow legal homeless camps.
But Marlow said the people who upset him the most are those who come from comparatively wealthy parts of town as part of misguided crusades to “help the homeless.”
“I’ve seen church buses stop over here and watched them unload mattresses and Lazy Boys,” he said. “They usually come from the suburbs, they give away their old junk, their old mattress and their old chair, they feel like they’re doing God’s work. They pat themselves on the back and they take a selfie.
“This is their way to get that good feeling and brag to their church friends. What they don’t understand is they’re perpetuating the problem. All they’re doing is allowing the hobos to have enough creature comforts to avoid the shelters, which is where they can get the help they need.”
Marlow is like Irwin, Kincannon, and Parker in at least one way, however: he considers himself a liberal. He just doesn’t believe the City’s current leadership has done a good job of addressing the homeless issue, plus he’s tired of being the victim of thefts, vandalisms and assaults.
Marlow believes that mental health must be made a public priority again. Most of the people on the streets have severe problems and likely need to be in asylums or drug treatment centers, he said.
When asked if he thinks the homeless problem can be fixed, he nodded and gave a simple reply.
“We need universal healthcare,” he said. “These people wouldn’t be here if there was a medical system to take care of them.”
Jeanine Dypolt, a social worker, joined Irwin’s tent protest because she believes that breaking up the camps is the wrong thing to do.
“As a social worker, I have to accept people as they are, where they are, who they are,” she said. “And I have to be able to find them to help them. Them moving around makes our jobs harder, and they lose their important things like legal documents.
“I would like the City to allow some sort of area where the homeless are organized, where the City provides portable toilets and dumpsters.”
Dypolt said many people mistakenly believe the homeless “just need to get a job.”
“How do you get a job when you have to carry all your stuff around, when you don’t have a regular place to bathe, when you have mental health problems? It’s not that easy.
“Homelessness is very complicated, and I just think people don’t understand that.”
J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Published on March 18, 2021