Knox homeless numbers skyrocket

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Amy and Stephen, a young homeless couple, prepare to cross Broadway at Fifth Avenue as they make their way to the Volunteer Ministry Center on Tuesday. Photo by J.J. Stambaugh.

It’s been obvious for some time now that the number of homeless people living on the streets of Knoxville has skyrocketed. 

Even so, the statistics made public Tuesday were shocking. 

There were 1,178  homeless people in Knoxville and Knox County on the day when the annual census was recorded in late February, according to numbers released by City of Knoxville officials.

That’s close to a 50 percent increase over 2021 and by far the largest annual increase on record. 

Even worse, the true number of people who’ve experienced homelessness over the past year is certainly much higher than what was recorded in the point-in-time, or PIT, count that was released Tuesday, officials said.

And those numbers are almost certainly going to get worse in the days, weeks and months to come.

“There’s going to be more families exposed, more children exposed to being unsheltered,” predicted Bruce Spangler, head of the Volunteer Ministry Center, after reviewing the most recent numbers.

The PIT count was gathered on Feb. 23, when 55 social workers and volunteers spread out to determine how many people were sleeping unsheltered on the streets, staying in emergency shelters, or living in transitional housing, officials said. 

Cities across the country conduct the PIT count annually for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which uses the information in a national report issued later in the year.

“With more outreach workers, there’s more engagement with people experiencing homelessness,” said Shawn Griffith, the City’s homelessness services coordinator. “What we’re seeing in the 2022 count is a more accurate representation of what our city’s homeless population truly is.” 

The PIT count found 373 unsheltered individuals and 805 who were in emergency shelter or transitional housing in Knoxville. 

More outreach workers and volunteers took part in this year’s count and, for the first time, canvassers used a secure mobile application on personal smart phones and agency tablets which improved the count’s accuracy, according to Griffith.

“This year’s PIT count also captured households that are historically hard to count, like people who are sheltered in hotels and motels,” Griffith said.

A federally funded COVID-19 relief program by the Community Action Committee (CAC) has provided hotel vouchers to families, young people, and elderly individuals experiencing homelessness who might otherwise have slept in their cars or doubled up with family members, he continued.

Nate First, project manager for the Knox Homeless Management Information System (KnoxHMIS), stressed the importance of tackling the problem from multiple directions.

“Homelessness isn’t a description of a person so much as of an event, which may be anywhere from one night to multiple years in length,” First said. 

“Every community’s response to homelessness must address these events at both ends, by housing people who are already homeless as well as by preventing episodes of homelessness before they start,” he continued. “KnoxHMIS data indicates that thousands of literally homeless clients have been housed in recent years; more than 1,600 were permanently housed in 2021. Of those housed each year, roughly 15 percent may enter new episodes of homelessness again within two years.”

According to KnoxHMIS, the top three primary reasons people experienced homelessness during the first three months of 2022 were “no affordable housing,” “mental/health reasons” and “eviction.”

Burt Rosen

 Burt Rosen, CEO of Knox Area Rescue Ministries (KARM), said that affordable housing is an important element of solving the problem, but not the only one.

“The PIT count identified 373 unsheltered individuals on the day of the count—up significantly.  Given the higher number of outreach workers, new software, and reaching those typically difficult to reach, this is likely the most accurate reliable number, although the number is likely higher for various reasons,” Rosen wrote in a statement provided to Hard Knox Wire. 

“Precise or not, 373 unsheltered homeless in our community is a sizable and growing number, and it will continue to grow unless we act. Affordable housing is a key, but not THE key (emphasis in original). As a community we must develop new approaches that go beyond affordable housing and engage the entire community in sustainable solutions,” he wrote.

VMC’s Spangler likened the growing number of persons experiencing homelessness to a bleeding wound “on the larger body politic, on the larger community.” 

“This is about the experience of poverty,” Spangler said. “Whether it’s the cost of housing, the cost of utilities, employment, whether or not you’re paid a fair and just wage, or the cost of healthcare.”

On top of those financial stresses, he continued, are the economic dislocations caused by the COVID-19 pandemic plus a sharp increase in demand for mental health care. There’s also inflation and the rising cost of property in Knox County, which has forced many people from their homes as rents have gone up.

“It’s just a pile-on for folks who are experiencing poverty,” he said. “So yes, the question remains — how we can create more housing? But it really is a systemic issue. How can we create a just system?”

Bruce Spangler

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

Published on June 1, 2022.

Published on June 1, 2022.