Homeless fear new law

Stephen and Amy Benford sit by their tent in Fountain City and worry about their future. Photo by Hard Knox Wire

(Editor’s note: Please see our clarification at the end of this article)

People all over the world lose their houses or apartments every day to some type of natural or manmade disaster. 

Fires, wars, floods and other catastrophes generally strike fast and hard before receding, leaving behind nothing except the question of whether to rebuild. 

Ironically, being homeless in Knoxville can mean losing the roof over your head on a regular basis. 

Stephen and Amy Benford, for instance, have had their home torn down a dozen times over the past year, usually by Public Service crews from the City but also by Knoxville Police Department officers. 

They’ve lost everything they owned several times over as they moved from campsite to campsite, finally settling in behind a fast food restaurant in Fountain City for the last few weeks.  

They say they’ve been going to the Volunteer Ministry Center (VMC) on a regular basis so they can begin the lengthy process of getting an apartment. Stephen has been doing roofing jobs for cash wages, and Amy has even joined him as an unskilled laborer to increase their income. 

One thing they never want to do is go back to the mission district near downtown for anything other than brief appointments.

“It’s a scary place to be,” Amy said. “At the mission they don’t have enough beds, so you just go to the chapel and spend all night sitting in a chair. I don’t know how that’s helping anybody.”

“They don’t help anybody,” Stephen said. “It’s nothing but a bunch of drugs and overdoses.”

But the Benfords are afraid they may soon have no choice in the matter as new policies threaten what little stability they’ve managed to carve out of Knoxville’s urban wilderness.

“A threat to our entire city”

For those who live on the farthest margins of society, good information can be harder to come by then a home-cooked meal or a fix. 

What that means is the streets are awash in conjecture and anecdotes: the weather, who’s hiring manual laborers for the day, who’s holding dope, which restaurants might give away leftovers  — the usual tidbits, passed along by a digital incarnation of the bush telegraph.

But there’s an edge of tension, even fear, bubbling under the surface these days. Some say the police are about to lead a crackdown on those who live in the area’s many camps, or they could soon catch a felony for sleeping on the wrong patch of weeds, or that they’ll have to choose between their few remaining possessions and a mission bed. 

A scene from the sprawling tent city in the so-called mission district near downtown. Photo by Hard Knox Wire

It doesn’t take long to learn the source of their paranoia. Even the homeless usually have access to a cell phone, not to mention frequent interactions with social workers and volunteers, which means they can keep up with the latest news. 

And the news — at least for those living in the direst poverty in Tennessee — is terrifying. 

The state Legislature recently passed a law that effectively criminalizes the homeless by making it a crime to sleep on any public property — city, county or state. Prosecutors can even opt to make it a felony, which opens the door for “tough-on-crime” politicians to lock poor people up in the state penitentiary for up to three years for being too broke to pay rent.

Rumors of a city-wide cleanup effort began to circulate soon afterwards, bolstered by the sudden installation of “No Trespassing” signs at several locations near large campsites that theoretically give the police authority to search or arrest anyone caught nearby without additional warnings.

City officials maintain that no significant crackdown or change in policy is imminent — but they also say they are preparing to be “more active” when it comes to enforcing the same rules that have traditionally been in place.

“The City is not changing its policies, but due to rising safety and health concerns, will be more active in reinforcing the guidelines that already exist, and encouraging more use of the City’s Safe Space,” said Michael Dunthorn, coordinator of the City’s Office on Homelessness.

According to records obtained by Hard Knox Wire, there will be an increased police presence near Cooper Street, especially property under Interstate 40/75 and land that’s owned by the railroad. Another area along Cooper, Broadway, and W. Magnolia Avenue is also being singled out for enhanced efforts. 

City officials stress that these actions have nothing to do with the passage of the anti-camping bill in Nashville.

Mayor Kincannon’s spokesperson, Kristin Farley, said the mayor was never even asked for her opinion about the bill by any of the legislators who voted for it.

As for the pending increase in enforcement, Farley pointed out that the camps are breeding grounds for disease and violent crime. Also, homeless individuals may have been behind a number of recent fires near downtown, she said. 

“The camps are a threat to our entire city,” she said. “We don’t want a life lost.”

Farley stressed repeatedly that, under Kincannon’s watch, the goal has been to not punish the homeless or make their lives harder but rather to get them the help they need. 

“Punish people for being ill, struggling, or poor”

Hard Knox Wire has tried unsuccessfully to ask the anti-camping bill’s authors why they feel it’s necessary to criminalize poor people who have nowhere to sleep but, say, a city park. 

Not one of Knox County’s three senators —  Randy McNally, Richard Briggs or Becky Massey — returned calls seeking comment as to why they voted for the bill. 

At one point during discussions in Nashville on the bill’s merits, Sen. Frank Nicely, a Republican from Strawberry Plains, seemed to argue that homeless people should emulate Adolf Hitler.

“In 1910, Hitler decided to live on the streets for a while,” Nicely said. “So for two years, Hitler lived on the streets and practiced his oratory and body language and how to connect with the masses and then went on to lead a life that got him in the history books. So a lot of these people, it’s not a dead-end. They can come out of this.”

Although Governor Bill Lee has yet to sign the anti-camping bill into law, it’s already generated significant pushback from not only Democrats but also from a diverse range of churches and faith-based agencies that help the poor.

The leaders of both Knox Area Rescue Ministries (KARM) and VMC — two of the largest and most important nonprofit agencies in Knoxville working with the homeless — say they weren’t consulted by the area’s state senators.

They also say they wouldn’t have supported the bill if they’d been asked about it.

“This bill most likely to be signed into law is similar to many others,” said Bruce Spangler, executive director of VMC.  “It disproportionately impacts people of color. Though African Americans make of roughly 9.5% of the population in Knoxville, at least a third of those experiencing homelessness are black.”

A sign recently installed near the large tent city near downtown. Photo by Hard Knox Wire

Spangler continued, “The rationale to ‘protect the homeless’ is disingenuous as there is no expansion of service funding associated with it. Finally, ‘homelessness’ is just a talking point, or the proverbial ‘political football’ tossed by officials running for office trying to convince voters that they have the ‘arm’ for the game. (This bill) is nothing short of a random play called in the huddle because they never really studied the playbook once the game started.” 

Spangler, who has argued that the only sensible solution to the problem is to drastically increase the number of affordable housing units, explained that enforcing the law will make it much harder for the homeless to find permanent housing.

“When the real issue is about the lack of affordable housing, access to safe and sustainable behavioral and health care, (the bill) is just to punish people for being ill, struggling, and poor,” he said. “Definitely, it gives new meaning to the ‘War on Poverty!’”

Burt Rosen, CEO of KARM, agreed with many of Spangler’s observations but also concurred with the City that the camps are dangerous.  

“While we agree that many of the homeless encampments are unsafe, we don’t believe this bill will accomplish its intent to protect the homeless and, in fact, may add to existing challenges for the individual,” Rosen said.

“Being homeless, regardless of how one became so, is not illegal,” Rosen continued. “Yet being homeless does not entitle someone to break the law.  However, we do believe that if someone is committing a crime on government or private property, then there should be consequences for their actions…just as for you and I.  But we must consider that many of our homeless neighbors wrestle with co-occurring disorders that add to the challenges of daily life.”

He added: “While not advocating for no enforcement of legal statutes, the goal is not to punish, but rather to help each person.  Jail and/or fines is not the solution to this growing challenge.”

Clarification published on May 4, 2022

Officials at Knox Area Rescue Ministries (KARM) recently took issue with comments made by some persons who are experiencing homelessness who were interviewed for our story “Homeless Fear New Law.” (See https://www.hardknoxwire.com/new-homeless-fear-new-law/)

In that story, Amy Benford, who has been without a home for over a year, said she didn’t like staying at KARM’s mission facility because, “At the mission they don’t have enough beds, so you just go to the chapel and spend all night sitting in a chair.” Her husband, Stephen, also described the mission as “nothing but a bunch of drugs and overdoses.”

KARM spokesperson Karen Bowdle, however, asked for a clarification and the opportunity to rebut their statements. 

“We do have enough beds in both our men’s and women’s dorms. If we ever ran out of beds, we are able to place mattresses in the Chapel and in other areas around the campus,” Bowdle said.

“The only reason someone would ‘go to the chapel and spend all night sitting in a chair’ (as quoted in your article) is if they chose to sit in a chair. Even if they are on suspension due to such issues as non-compliance, stealing, drunkenness, or other disruptive behaviors, they would be provided a mattress and linens for sleeping in the Chapel. As I mentioned, a suspension can usually be overturned simply by having a conversation with a staff member,” she continued. 

“As for the other quote in your article about KARM, ‘They don’t help anybody…. It’s nothing but a bunch of drugs and overdoses.’ Well, that statement is simply not true. Our staff members are vigilant in their efforts to keep the campus free of drugs and alcohol,” she said. 

Situations like this pose delicate dilemmas for journalists. On the one hand, we believe firmly that we shouldn’t automatically accept the veracity of officials sources over that of unofficial ones — to do so is to fundamentally compromise our duty to “speak truth to power,” which we consider to be absolutely core to Hard Knox Wire’s mission. 

On the other hand, we don’t want to simply allow people to throw mud at an organization like KARM, which is one of Knox County’s most venerable charities. KARM provides emergency shelter to thousands of people a year, feeds many more, and offers numerous programs to help people get back on their feet, address addictions, and obtain stable housing. The folks at KARM provide services around-the-clock to hundreds of people living on the streets, many of them battling mental illness, drug addiction or extreme poverty. It’s a difficult, painful and highly stressful calling, and we commend the efforts of KARM’s volunteers and employees. 

For years, local officials have characterized the struggle to address homelessness in Knoxville as being largely an effort to convince those living on the streets to instead seek help through agencies like KARM. Those living on the streets, however, refuse to go to the mission for a number of reasons, and they often cite the ones given by Stephen and Amy.

Reporting on issues like homelessness can often feel like walking through a minefield where the credibility of everyone is constantly called into question and the objective truth of the matter is impossible to discern. It’s a distinctly human problem, and we are as human as the people we cover. When it comes to those who are experiencing homelessness and those who devote their time and resources to helping their neighbors, we try to listen carefully to both sides and we urge our readers to do the same.

J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at jjstambaugh@hardknoxwire.com.

Published on May 2, 2022.