Burchett's Focus on Alcohol Detracts From Plan for the Homeless

You'd think by now County Mayor Tim Burchett would have learned to be more mindful of the law. It took a public directive from the county law director to blow the whistle on Burchett's proposal for a new Carter Elementary School that flew in the face of a state law vesting sole authority over construction of new schools in the Board of Education. Yet Burchett persists in proclaiming that he's going to cut off county funding to the Ten-Year Plan for housing the chronically homeless unless its directors impose a ban on alcohol consumption that may well violate the federal Fair Housing Act.

That law prohibits housing discrimination against people with disabilities and specifically defines alcoholism (but not illegal drug use) as a covered disability. According to a publication of the Corporation for Supportive Housing, "Alcoholism is considered a disability if it interferes with one or more major life activities and therefore is not a basis by itself for refusing occupancy even if the applicant has not achieved nor desires sobriety. ... Since alcohol is a legal substance, whether or not the applicant is currently partaking of alcohol is not relevant ... [unless] the applicant's problems with alcohol have caused behavior problems that interfere with the applicant's ability to meet the terms of tenancy."

Legalities aside, proponents of the Ten-Year Plan are clear that Burchett's call for a ban on drinking in their supportive housing facilities is misguided from a policy standpoint as well. Under the "housing first" approach that both the city and county governments embraced when they jointly launched the plan in 2004, the objective is to get the chronically homeless off the streets first and then have case managers work with them on mental illness, substance abuse, and other destabilizing influences that have contributed to their homelessness.

University of Tennessee professor of social work David Patterson cites numerous studies showing that this approach has worked well in reducing the chronically homeless population and stabilizing their lives in may other cities. And even within county government, individuals with experience in this field agree with Patterson.

As reflected in the minutes of a public meeting on the Ten-Year Plan last summer, Linda Rust of the county's Department of Community Development stated, "based on her experience working at the Helen Ross McNabb Center, when a case manager encounters a client ... it's the case manager's responsibility to determine needs and find resources to help the client address those needs. To make sobriety a condition of the lease would be counterproductive for a lot of people because they would perceive that condition as coercive. Research demonstrates that clients are more likely to get services if they make a choice to do it and don't feel coerced. The stability provided by housing is therapeutic in and of itself. It provides a level of peace that helps residents be in a better place to get the services they need to help them confront their issues."

Burchett purports to have done his own research that tells him otherwise. In a recent interview on WBIR-TV, he said, "I have friends who are in homeless missions ... and they tell me that if you allow me to drink in that facility, I will; but if you don't, I'm going to work with you to help you meet your goal of getting these people straightened out." When it was pointed out to him that less than 20 percent of the chronically homeless are deemed to have a drinking problem, and he was asked why a drinking ban should be imposed on all the others, Burchett responded, "When a guy tells me if he so much as smells a beer, he's back off the wagon, and I just don't see how you are going to segregate that bunch. And what we're really dealing with is the federal government saying this is a disability, and that's fine. If they want to do a Ten-Year Plan, they can go ahead and do it, but they are going to do it without Knox County's help if they are going to allow alcohol in those facilities."

Fortunately, a number of county commissioners—prospectively a majority, I would hope—are paying more attention to what the professionals are saying, particularly the executive director of the Volunteer Ministry Center, Ginny Weatherstone. The VMC has assumed primary responsibility for providing case management services at what are intended to be permanent housing facilities for the previously homeless, such as the recently opened Minvilla Manor on Broadway, the Flenniken School in South Knoxville that's due to open in about a year after renovation, and any others that may follow amid ongoing controversy over their locations.

"What it boils down to for me is that I really have confidence in the people that are the professionals and have made this their life's work—people like Ginny Weatherstone," says Commissioner Tony Norman. "We've got to put aside our preconceived ideas and prejudices and defer to these people who know what they're doing."

If the only thing at stake was the piddling $50,000 a year the county has been contributing to the Ten-Year Plan's administration (compared to $200,000 from the city), then the threatened loss of county funding might not make much difference. But the plan's director, Jon Lawler, foresees a $570,000 "funding gap" for case management services in the fiscal year ahead, and he's looking to Knox County to cover most, if not all, of it.

A big part of the gap arises from the loss of $500,000 in federal stimulus funding that runs out at the end of the current fiscal year. This money has been going mainly to provide support to some 300 formerly homeless individuals who've been placed in existing public housing operated by Knoxville's Community Development Corp. In addition, case managers will be needed for the facility at Flenniken School, whose success will be crucial in helping to overcome neighborhood resistance to other facilities like it that are due to follow in subsequent years.

Lawler believes Knox County should shoulder this expense because it will be the prime beneficiary of cost reductions that various studies show will result from getting the chronically homeless into permanent supportive housing. These reductions, mainly in costs of incarceration and indigent medical care, exceed case management costs incurred once the formerly homeless have been housed, he asserts. Drawing on a study conducted by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, Lawler has produced a cost-benefit analysis showing that county expenses would drop from $6,850 to $5,009 per individual. UT's Patterson and Kathy Brown of the Knox County Health Department are collaborating on a similar "before and after" local study that's due to be completed next spring.

Hopefully, this study will bolster the Ten-Year Plan's case for additional county funding, but Burchett's present posturing is a detraction.