frank_talk (2006-37)

Time for Tough Love

Want to contribute to the destruction of downtown? 

by Frank Cagle

Thanks to Oprah and Doctor Phil we now know what an “enabler” is. It usually means someone with good intentions trying to help someone, but actually enabling them to continue destructive behavior. The antidote for being an enabler is usually something called “tough love.”

We don’t want to be politically incorrect here, but there are a lot of well-meaning Christians in West Knox County who need to start practicing tough love when it comes to the homeless population in downtown Knoxville.

There are organizations like the Knox Area Rescue Ministry and Volunteer Ministries and the Salvation Army, with facilities on the north end of downtown. These people do a commendable job and have dealt with the homeless of Knoxville and the greater East Tennessee area for many, many years. There is a homeless task force, formed by the city and county mayors, with the long-term goal of ending homelessness in Knoxville.

There is also another task force, headed by City Councilman Chris Woodhull and Bill Lyons, director of policy development for the mayor, who meet regularly with the homeless industry, neighborhood groups and North Knoxville businesses. Calling it a task force is a misnomer, since pretty much anybody who shows up can participate. They are trying to come up with concrete short-term solutions to panhandling, misdemeanor crimes and public drunkenness, which inhibit developing the neighborhood that lies between downtown and neighborhoods like Fourth and Gill.

It is a hard slog, but the group hopes to make some recommendations to Mayor Bill Haslam. It may include things like fencing off areas under the interstate (popular for loitering and urination) and installing lights; some regulation of panhandling door-to-door in Fourth and Gill; and putting chronic petty criminals in an alternative sentencing program to get them help rather than putting them back on the street.

I don’t know what the final result will be, but my point is that there are people who are working to solve the homeless problem, people trying to improve the neighborhood and people providing charity to those in need. If you feel the commendable urge to do good works and decide feeding the homeless in downtown Knoxville is a no-brainer, think again. I would suggest you do it through existing agencies and in cooperation with people who know the problems in an up close and personal way.

There may be people getting duplicate services while others are not getting the help they need. There is some hope of having a database of homeless people so differing agencies can know who is already getting help and who is not. You hear stories now about people hurrying through one food line so they can get down to some other location and get another free meal. This while there may be other people going hungry.

There is also the situation where people are being provided with food, clothing and shelter, leaving them the ability to spend their government checks on alcohol and drugs. There are also scam artists, able-bodied people who infiltrate the homeless population to panhandle and cadge services.

There is a concerted effort to redevelop the area between North Gay and Emory Place, providing a link to residential neighborhoods like Fourth and Gill. It is essential to the long-term success of what’s happening downtown. Dealing with panhandlers, drunks and petty criminals is an integral part of that effort. We should remember that the agencies trying to minister to the homeless are not responsible for the behavior of homeless people when they are on the streets. But they do have influence, and they are working with the task force to help deal with aberrant behavior.

The police are frustrated. They get complaints about panhandling, public drunkenness and petty theft. But they feel powerless. They take people in, and they are back on the street before the cops finish the paperwork. Knoxville City Council needs to step up with some ordinances that deal with these issues. It may seem fruitless to try to use law enforcement to deal with a social problem. But former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani demonstrated that attacking graffiti, prosecuting minor crimes and being vigilant can have a major impact on the social fabric of a city.

We can feel sorry for the homeless and work to help them. But we don’t have to put up with people peeing on the sidewalk, doing worse in the yard of a Fourth and Gill resident or taking a bath in the stream through Krutch Park.

We have some success going in downtown Knoxville. We have retail coming along and we have housing experiencing a boom. If you give a panhandler in downtown Knoxville a dime you are a fool and you are threatening the future of downtown itself.

As the old drug PSA used to put it: “Just Say No.”

Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville Magazine . You can reach him at frank@frankcagle.com .