The Corner Perspective: Our Collective Sin

Construction equipment from the City of Knoxville is used to destroy a homeless camp found behind a Fountain City business during a recent cleanup operation. The three men who had been living at the camp claimed to have lost most of their personal property and ended up relocating to another nearby site. (Photo by J.J Stambaugh)

Many years ago, when my mother-in-law was alive, she would often ask before any given Sunday, “What are you goin’ to preach on?” Before I could respond, she would say, “Sin? You for or again’ it?”

Before working with Volunteer Ministry Center, I served church parishes in Knoxville, Cleveland, and Chattanooga. The weekly task of preparing and speaking with relevance and importance is challenging to pull off. My mother-in-law seems to have pulled back the veil on an old “preachers’ trick.” When in doubt, rant about it, pointing a righteous and scolding finger at the “so-called” sinner.

We seem to rant when we see “Camper Joe” and his friends huddled in a vacant lot.  Our anger rises to the indictment when “Needle Nancy” is seen injecting herself on a city sidewalk.

Our tempers are lost when “Crazy Sam” is in the middle of the street, muttering to himself and yelling at the voices that only he can hear.

The community shouts its displeasure demanding that someone must do something! But always, that is as far as it goes.

We find ourselves polarized when discussing homelessness and its seeming prevalence. It follows that when caught between the extremes, we become paralyzed, resulting in patchwork practices and make-shift policies responding to one crisis event after another.  

Our paralysis is our collective sin.

Matthew Desmond’s acclaimed book, Eviction: Poverty and Profit in an American City, names our collective sin regarding the present housing crisis in just under thirty words: “No moral code or ethical principle, no piece of scripture or holy teaching can be summoned to defend what we have allowed our country to become.”  

The visibility of “Camping Joe” is not a sign of malingering but a sign of a housing shortage.

Witnessing “Needle Sally” indicates a shortage of substance abuse services more than her indifference to community mores.

“Crazy Sam” is not an anti-social criminal.  He needs accessible long-term care.

Einstein suggested that when faced with significant problems, they “cannot be solved at the same level of thing we were at when we created them.” Claiming Einstein’s wisdom, our finger-pointing at Camper Joe, Needle Nancy, or Crazy Sam is not the remedy, but rather our collective sin.

The quality of living will not change for Joe, Nancy, Sam, or the community until we have a comprehensive, collaborative, and unified approach to housing and health care.  

I don’t believe that a laissez-faire approach or a simple benevolent approach is helpful or practical. Instead, let’s start with a City-County joint effort that empowers a lead agency to help establish priorities and coordinate service provisions. Our community needs a single lead agency to coordinate the community’s program efforts, interpret the data to chart the course, and provide transparency and accountability for the public and private sectors’ investments. We need someone to help us to “row in unison.”

Let’s be done with finger-pointing.

As to the question of a lead agency, however, are we for it or again’ it?

Bruce Spangler is the chief executive officer of Volunteer Ministry Center, a nonprofit agency located in Knoxville. VMC is a social agency dedicated to ending and preventing homelessness at

Bruce Spangler

Published on September 23, 2022.