commentary (2006-16)

Knoxville should kickstart its plan for the homeless, now

The Where, the When

by Molly Kincaid

At the last City Council meeting, there was some heated discussion about “the where.” The decision was whether to approve Volunteer Ministry Center’s move to convert the former 5th Ave. Motel into 57-60 low-rent apartments to permanently house chronically homeless men and women. Nearly everyone who spoke agreed that the city’s Ten-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness, which places heavy emphasis on long-term housing, was a positive step. However, as councilman Mark Brown pointed out several times, people were up in arms about “where” such housing units should go.

Such lengthy discourse on “where” was ironic in the context of a plan intending to aid those with no sense of where.

But the plan itself isn’t entirely altruistic; it seeks to better manage the funds allocated to homeless services by better managing the problem. At its core, the strategy is to get chronic homeless cases off the street, and thus keep them from draining the 90 percent of that funding that they currently do, with strings of emergency room visits, stints in jail, and countless nights in shelters.

“Chronically homeless” describes those who have been without a home for over a year or have had three episodes of homelessness in a year. Emergency shelters do not have the capacity to handle those people, and the majority of them are plagued by mental and/or physical disabilities.

Knoxville’s plan is closely modeled after other plans adopted by more than 200 cities across the country, all under the loose leadership of the Interagency Council on Homelessness. A commonality of those plans is the primary goal of creating 200 efficiencies to house people, with onsite caseworkers visiting them daily. But of course, every city has its own set of circumstances.

Namely, it’s the residents of Fourth and Gill and Old North Knoxville who are raising their protest fists over VMC’s move. Their reaction’s understandable; the area has been dealing with homeless issues for as long as anybody can remember, because of the cluster of services there. Not only are there the shelters, but there are also other social services, day labor outlets, check-cashing businesses. The place is undoubtedly overrun with “homeless industry,” as some have called it. In addition to VMC’s projected 5th Ave. renovation, the organization has acquired and demolished the former KARM site down the street and plans to build a new facility there. Many fear the strip will become—if it’s not already—a veritable Skid Row.

Further, many residents blame the homeless population for petty theft in the area. Whether there’s truth in that is beside the point, really. Some might wish to address the homeless issue out of empathy for the huddled clumps of humanity under the bridge. Others want to clean up their neighborhoods. The point is, there’s a homeless problem in Knoxville, and we need to do something about it.

Many criticize the homeless industry, accusing it of pocketing federal funds, eschewing its traditionally faith-based mindset. But what’s happening now, with the 5th Ave. conversion and with the Ten-Year Plan as a whole, promises to revolutionize that homeless industry as we know it.

As Dr. Roger Nooe, UT’s expert on homelessness, points out in his 2004 study on Knoxville’s homeless population, our city falls in among the many locales that have suffered from the shortage of low-income housing in the past few decades. The need for S.R.O.s (single-room occupancies) is pressing.

Just to rent a one-bedroom apartment in that area requires first and last months’ rent, which runs around a grand. It’s pretty tough to save that much working minimum wage, and that’s if you’re not physically or mentally stricken. This plan sets out to get people over that hump.

Other cities that have begun implementing the plan have seen success. A recent New Yorker story by Malcolm Goldwell took a look at Denver, where officials say they are housing and caring for homeless people for “about a third of what it would cost if he or she were on the street.”

As for the where, it really doesn’t make sense to take the program outside the center city; employment’s dispersed in the suburbs and it’s much more difficult to get around on foot. In the city, there are buses and jobs (or there will be, hopefully, with the employment and training segments of the plan).

Not to mention the preservation aspect. Since the motel’s been closed, there have been efforts at private development which have failed because of funding issues. But with federal low-income housing funds, it might work.

Many who are opposed to the 5th Ave. Motel move bemoan the area’s saturation with homeless industry. It’s a valid concern, but people have to take the leap of faith that long-term housing is going to be different. We know from years of failure that emergency shelters don’t work to end homelessness, only to sustain it.

City Council voted to postpone the vote on the 5th Ave. until this Thursday, April 20, after a workshop at 6:30 p.m. on the Ten-Year Plan. If Council votes the measure down, the federal funding will expire and become unavailable. The question, it seems, isn’t the where, but the when, and why not now?