Supporting Supportive Housing

Case managers for homeless needed

The perception abounds that efforts to provide permanent supportive house for the chronically homeless have been put on hold pending the outcome of a public process being conducted by a task force aptly named Compassion Knoxville. But such is not the case.

Housing projects set in motion before controversy over the selection of additional sites led to a moratorium are continuing apace. These include Minvilla Manor with its 57 tidily renovated apartments that opened last fall at he corner of Fifth Avenue and Broadway, and the 48 units that are due to be ready for occupancy this coming fall at the renovated former Flenniken School in South Knoxville. Moreover, the Volunteer Ministry Center, which owns and operates Minvilla, is also supporting more than 100 additional formerly homeless individuals whom it has placed on a much more scattered basis.

These are just a small subset of the 1,146 chronically homeless individuals in Knox County as tabulated by the University of Tennessee College of Social Work's Homeless Management Information System. And whatever the Compassion Knoxville task force may recommend after conducting some 30 community meetings now underway, it won't be compassionate if it doesn't recognize that these individuals need help.

It also seems indisputable that getting them and keeping them in decent housing requires supervision of the sort provided by VMC's cadre of case managers. "Case management is key," says VMC's CEO Ginny Weatherstone. "You've got to have a case manager working with these people and holding them accountable. When you hold these people accountable, they rise to the occasion. We see that time after time."

Accountability consists of everything from keeping their apartments clean and exhibiting good behavior to taking the medication needed to treat mental illnesses, which are prevalent among the homeless. Weatherstone says it takes one case manager per 25 residents to achieve success, which she defines as keeping them housed for at least a year, and she claims a 94 percent success rate.

At a cost of $50,000 per position that includes a lot of incidental expenses in addition to their salary, the total cost of VMC's seven case managers is about $350,000, of which $200,000 is covered by grants that expire on June 30. While Weatherstone has been working on obtaining other sources of private funding, "there's nothing to report," she says. "I get so frustrated when it becomes difficult to raise money for something so important."

The shortfall may be compounded when two additional case managers will be needed to support residents moving into the former Flenniken School. VMC expects to contract for these services with the facility owner and operator, the Southeastern Housing Foundation. Its president, Chris Martin, will only say, "There are several things we're working on" when it comes to funding the positions, but that "it's got to be done."

(Rental income primarily in the form of what are known as Section 8 vouchers funded by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development is expected to cover the operating expenses of Minvilla and Flenniken when both are fully occupied.)

One encouraging sign is the way in which South Knoxville's City Councilman Nick Pavlis has embraced the Flenniken project after initially opposing it. "It's coming, so I'm going to do everything in my power to make it the best it can be," Pavlis says. He praises Martin for "having done a good job of reaching out to the community," and says the goal now is "to achieve integration of the homeless into the community and develop mutual trust."

Going even further, Pavlis ventures that "If it's successful, there's a chance that the rest of Knoxville will embrace it—and the county as well because it's got to be a joint effort." He, too, thinks "case management is a key to all of this," but says "I'm not going to speculate on whether public funding might be forthcoming to support it."

The city administration's recommended budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 includes continuation of a $50,000 allocation for one VMC case management position. Deputy to the Mayor Larry Martin says, "We still believe in and are committed to the Ten-Year Plan [to End Chronic Homelessness]." From its inception in 2005, the plan has been a joint city-county endeavor. But County Mayor Tim Burchett has given it the cold shoulder—at least until the consumption of alcohol is forbidden on residential premises.

Weatherstone remains committed to a strategy of getting the chronically homeless into supportive housing first and then dealing with their problems. "The much larger challenge is adequately and effectively dealing with mental illness rather than alcohol," she asserts, adding that substance abuse is often a symptom of an underlying disease.

I'd like to think the divisiveness that has plagued the Ten-Year Plan arises mainly over where rather than whether the homeless should be housed. If the Compassion Knoxville task force can forge a consensus on this issue, more power to it. But at the very least, it should reinforce the need for funding the supportive services that are essential to making any homeless reclamation effort work. m