Every time I hear the "Not in My Backyard" opposition arise to a prospective site for supportive housing that fulfills the city's Ten-Year Plan for ending chronic homelessness, I think about my own experience with the homeless in my own backyard.
Three years ago I opted to rent an office of my own in the bowels of a building near the southwest corner of Gay and Jackson. That placed it right next door to the Volunteer Ministry Center's homeless shelter—prior to the VMC's relocation last year to a new facility on North Broadway.
More than just next door, the only ground-level entrance to my office is from the west via a private parking lot off Jackson that was separated from the homeless shelter's outdoor patio by only a chain-link fence. So I virtually shared a backyard with the shelter's populace.
Not once during these two years of close proximity was I ever pestered or panhandled, let alone subjected to a break-in or any form of vandalism.
Granted, both my office hours and the shelter's hours of operation were limited to the day time. So I can't account for where these unfortunate folks spent the night after I had headed home, with one exception.
The exception is that the VMC also has 16 small apartments that are tenanted by previously homeless single men. There are still located, as they have been for 19 years, at the corner of Gay and Jackson and they are intended to be anything but temporary shelters. Rather, they represent just the sort of more permanent supportive housing that the Ten-Year Plan aims to provide to the Knoxville area's estimated 1,000 individuals who are classified as chronically homeless. All but one of the VMC apartment residents have been living there for at least a year, which is one of VMC director Ginny Weatherstone's measures of success in reclaiming people from the ranks of the homeless.
Make no mistake about it, though, these are still a troubled group of individuals, many of whom have mental illnesses and/or a history of addiction. Prototypical of what the Ten Year Plan is supposed to provide on much larger scale, a case manager is assigned to each of them who, as Weatherstone puts it, "knows what they are struggling with." In addition to counseling, the case manager may check to see if they are sticking with their prescribed medications or provide transportation to a doctor's office.
As well intended as all of this is, the NIMBYs of this world have a right to be concerned about the impact of an influx of chronically homeless people in their neighborhoods. So, as an extension of my daytime experiences with them, I called upon a number of neighborhood residents to get a sense of their experiences on a 24/7 basis.
Just across Gay Street from the VMC apartments is the Emporium, whose apartment dwellers include the city of Knoxville's outgoing special events director, Mickey Mallonee, and the executive director of Knox Heritage, Kim Trent.
"When the VMC shelter was here, I did see a lot of homeless people congregating on the corner, but they never caused me any problem, and since the shelter moved I'm not even conscious of their presence," says Mallonee. Trent says she and her two children, ages 7 and 15, "have never had any problem. I'd much rather have these people living in apartments getting the resources they need rather than living in a dumpster and asking for handouts."
In November, the VMC apartment dwellers are due to move en masse to the larger just completed renovation of the formerly decrepit Fifth Avenue Motel, which has been transformed into a 57-unit complex for housing the homeless known as Minvilla. When the $7 million Minvilla project was approved by City Council with largely federal funding, it was held out to be the first of a dozen or more similarly sized facilities that would be scattered through the city and Knox County so as to avoid a ghetto-like concentration of the formerly homeless in a small area. This model has proved successful in keeping many of these people housed in other cities, whereas large compounds have not.
As has been exhaustively reported, however, attempts to locate other facilities in outlying areas has met vociferous opposition from nearby neighborhoods. The only one that's been approved, by a cliffhanging five to four City Council vote last spring, is the renovation of the former Flenniken School in South Knoxville into 48 apartment units that are due to be completed in about a year. Several proposed West Knox sites have been dropped like hot potatoes, and the ringleader of the opposition, Ron Peabody, is pressing for a referendum in next year's city election that would bring the Ten-Year Plan to a halt.
City Council's most compelling advocate of the plan in general and its dispersed approach to housing in particular has been Marilyn Roddy. But now that she's running for mayor, Roddy is taking a somewhat different tack. On a talk radio show, she called for putting a hold on any projects beyond Minvilla and Flenniken. "We need to get them open, and I think that the community is going to see that they address the needs of that population very well and that they are not harmful to the community. But I want that track record behind us before we move forward," Roddy said.
For my own part, based on my own backyard experience and that of my neighbors at Gay and Jackson, I'm all for moving forward sooner. On the other hand, I'll have to admit to apprehension that exploiting fear of the homeless could become a telling issue in next year's mayoral and City Council elections. Hopefully, sharing my own experience can help allay that concern.