“Wrestling with Leviathan”

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Life in the sprawling Blackstock Camp before the recent cleanup. Photos by J.J. Stambaugh

“We wrestle daily with the Leviathan,” says Bruce Spangler. “Actually, I don’t know if it’s wrestling with Leviathan or wrestling with the divine. But either way, you’re going to get hurt.”

That’s how Spangler, who heads the Volunteer Ministry Center near downtown, describes the work that he and his team do every day on Knoxville’s streets. 

While VMC’s primary focus is getting people who are experiencing homelessness into permanent housing, that mission requires a lot of flexibility and an unwavering commitment to meeting their “neighbors” (they don’t like to call them “clients”) where they find them.

That means offering services like the Foyer, a “low barrier” shelter that accepts pets, couples and LGBTQ persons. It also includes a dental clinic, several supportive housing facilities, and their newest program — portable showers that allow those living on the streets the chance to take care of basic hygiene. 

Parked next to the large homeless encampment on nearby Cooper Street four days a week is a trailer that contains five showers. Manned by VMC employees Mark Greenlee and Joc Booker, the portable facility addresses several needs, according to Spangler.

Bruce Spangler
Rosie Cross

“The City approached us because they were getting COVID money and the idea of providing a level of hygiene for our neighbors who have been camping,” he said. “It was a great use of those funds, and they reached out to see if we were interested.”

Right now, the funds are going to rent the trailer but next month VMC expects to buy two brand-new, $72,000 trailers. “Those trailers were at a premium because of the disasters we’ve had, and we’re fortunate to have them,” said Spangler. 

In addition to providing a hot shower, VMC also offers a laundry service that allows people living outside to at least occasionally enjoy freshly cleaned clothing.

“This is another change to show one’s usefulness. If we can help you here, then we may be able to get your a birth certified your state ID. We’ve demonstrated our ability to deliver,” he said.

“This provides another way to engage with our neighbors,” he continued. “But it’s also much more than that. The idea of providing showers is about not only meeting health or hygiene needs, but it can help awaken something that may be dying inside an individual. I’ve seen many individuals who were disheveled or unkempt by virtue of sleeping outside, and it helps awaken some hope.”

“Engagement” with VMC’s neighbors is the primary goal of Rosie Cross, Director of Homeless Outreach Services. Cross heads up the team of VMC outreach workers who travel to the many campsites throughout Knoxville to try and convince people to take advantage of the help they have to offer. 

According to VMC officials, 229 people were being helped by VMC’s outreach workers in November. Also, 46 people used the showers and 27 took advantage of the laundry service.

“The showers are now open in the afternoons because it’s not as cold, and also because people are more likely to be up and moving around,” Cross said. “There are also signs up, and we’re allowing walkups to use them. Some neighbors will come back multiple times without engaging with outreach workers. The showers are a great tool that have changed how we interact with some of our neighbors.”

VMC employees Mark Greenlee and Joc Booker hang up a banner advertising the new shower service at the Cooper Street encampment.

Between them, Spangler and Cross have dozens of years’ worth of experience serving Knoxville’s homeless population. One of the more unfortunate changes they’ve witnessed in recent years is an increase in the number of chronically homeless men and women.

“I’m wondering if it’s tied to the accessibility to mental health and behavioral health services,” Spangler said. For someone who has undiagnosed or untreated mental illness, the longer they’re on the streets, the impact of that experience really accelerates the level of that illness.”

He continued, “Our society struggles for some reason with how to deliver appropriate and compassionate mental health services and addiction disorder services. It struggles for some reason. I think what’s behind it is that we still operate with a myth of each person to their own. The individualism that guides a lot of our social principles and social norms, it can get in the way of living.” 

Those interested in learning more about VMC, donating money or volunteering their time can visit their website at https://www.vmcinc.org.

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

Published on December 17, 2021