The Corner Perspective: The Everyday Experience of February 23

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A homeless camp that was hurriedly abandoned during the recent push to force much of Knoxville’s homeless persons away from the so-called “Mission District.” (Photo by Hard Knox Wire)

He looked familiar, but I was not sure.

As we approached each other, strolling on the sidewalk, I thought for a moment that I knew him but then decided I did not.  I gave a Southern “just-in-case” hello but quickly passed him by, continuing my lunch walk.

Recently, the annual point-in-time (PIT) report on homelessness in our community was released.  Taken on February 23 of this year, this “snapshot” identifies the number of people who are unhoused, either staying in a shelter or finding refuge in a car, sleeping outside, or any other place “not fit for human habitation.”   The report cites the primary reasons for homelessness as the lack of affordable housing, complex mental or health issues, and eviction.  The report underscores what sometimes dominates our local conversations, political posturing, and revolving news cycles about homelessness and its direct and indirect impact on individuals, families, and our community.   

The PIT report counts 1,178 people on that given day in February.  The number represents an overall increase of 58 percent, or more 400 people, over the previous count.  

For those seeking refuge beyond shelters, that number is more troubling.  Among our community’s most vulnerable citizens (those with disabling conditions and extended periods of homelessness) the number of unsheltered increased by 63 percent. 

Often seen in city streets and parks or “camping,” these men and women linger in unhealthy and unsafe environments as shadows cast against the light of a city bustling with activity.   

The PIT report could easily be tossed aside with an indifferent shrug or used to demonstrate “things” are not working and place blame on a variety of potential scapegoats.  Far too often, honest and frank conversations about “root causes” and the contradictions of good intentions and dubious outcomes simply don’t occur.  The tendency, rather, is to find fault in the “pathology” of “goodwill” providers or the “resistant” individual or both.  Regrettably, this masks the actual problem.  

It is clear from the PIT report that the experience of homelessness persists and appears to be increasing and lengthening for some.  We see it for ourselves as we stroll our sidewalks and parks.   

However, the recent news that the cost of renting a home has increased 19% in the Knoxville area compared to last year (per the Knoxville Area Association of REALTORS®) should begin to give us some insight into a “root cause.”   

When housing is out of reach due to affordability, availability, accessibility, and appropriateness, we can expect such a report. The challenge of affordability reveals that homelessness is an experience, an event — an event that results from an ever-changing, ongoing process in a fluid and sometimes unstable housing market. With this observation, the focus shifts (or should shift) to the process that makes the event occur. In so doing, I am inclined to ask, “why is Joe homeless” versus pointing at “homeless Joe.”

Volunteer Ministry Center’s mission is unapologetically bold – to end and prevent homelessness.  

Often quizzed on the mission statement’s use of “ending and preventing,” the generally accepted sentiment is that homelessness is a socially given reality with no possibility of an end or prevention. Yet, I believe that we fulfill that mission every time an unhoused neighbor signs a lease or a family receives assistance stabilizing their housing.   

Weekly, VMC fulfills the small “h” mission in homelessness.  Solving the problem of the capital “H” in Homelessness requires removing the political theatre around personalities, examining the event, understanding its root causes, and implementing a public policy informed by best practices supported by empirical evidence. It begins a deep dive into the economics of the supply and demand of housing.

In the interim, responding to the event of homelessness requires a continuum of services from a dedicated system for coordination, increasing access to housing, providing supportive housing for those who need assistance, and ensuring a robust yet lean crisis response infrastructure, augmented with increased employment opportunities and stable incomes. 

My “just-in-case” hello received a response. I turned to see the person just as I recognized the voice — he was a co-worker who had been with us for a couple of months, but I had never seen his whole face before today due to the practice of wearing COVID masks.

Suppose we continue to see homelessness as a problem instead of an event. In that case, we will never fully see nor understand the experience of our neighbors, remaining behind the veil of the shadows. 

 Bruce Spangler is the chief executive officer of Volunteer Ministry Center, a nonprofit agency located in Knoxville. VMC’s mission is “to facilitate permanent supportive housing for those who are homeless and to provide services to prevent homelessness.” For more information, visit the agency’s website at https://www.vmcinc.org. 

Bruce Spangler

Published on June 23, 2022.