commentary (2006-17)

A prediction: The skids will be put under skid row

Gimme Shelter

by Matt Edens

"We can’t keep doing what we’re doing right now,” said Mayor Haslam at last Thursday’s City Council workshop on the controversial $460,000 grant to Volunteer Ministries Center for the purchase of Minvilla, the circa 1913 rowhouses more notoriously known as the 5th Avenue Motel. Then, after several hours of venting by frustrated Fourth and Gill residents, Council voted to approve the money, adding a fourth piece of real estate to the growing portfolio held by homeless service providers within a half-block circle of the intersection that has become Knoxville’s “Mission District.”

Their clients may be homeless, but the agencies looking out for them sure have a knack for acquiring real estate. Beyond VMC’s latest purchase, there’s the Salvation Army’s roughly 10-year-old campus immediately out the Minvilla’s back door. Knoxville Area Rescue Ministries has even newer digs just across Broadway. And, north of Fifth, KARM’s old shelter was also recently purchased by VMC for renovation into its offices and day shelter (thanks to a similar half-million dollar grant of county funds), and since torn down. Despite claims that homeless shelters are bad for property values, VMC may be sitting on the most expensive vacant lot in the inner city.

The demolition of KARM’s old building means that the “Mission District” isn’t just larger; once VMC’s ambitious building program is done it will be housed entirely in buildings that have been built or substantially rebuilt within the last decade or so. As a community, Knoxville has thrown millions of dollars at the purchase, construction and renovation of real estate relating to homeless services. And now VMC is proposing to put some $3.8 million more towards the renovation of their latest acquisition (money which, by the way, has yet to be raised). So, in that regard, I’d say the Mayor had it exactly backwards; it’s the same old, same old of spending money on real estate around Fifth and Broadway.

The details, as hizzoner pointed out, are different, however. VMC’s 60 new apartments will be aimed not at providing short-term shelter, but long-term assistance and support to the “chronically homeless,” as part of the city and county’s joint Ten-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness. I was guardedly optimistic about the plan when it was announced last year, writing in this column that its emphasis on greater statistical tracking and dispersed, long-term housing sounded “like sound policy decisions to me, particularly if the dispersed housing is truly dispersed and doesn’t mean one complex on Broadway, another on Fifth, a couple on Central and a few more on Magnolia.”

I meant that as cynicism, not a prediction. But that was before the private redevelopment proposal for the Minvilla collapsed, leaving a piece of real estate the shelters have long coveted up for grabs and, more importantly, a half-million in federal money on the table. And so VMC’s project moves forward, an opportunistic attempt to get the otherwise unfunded Ten-Year Plan off the ground, even if it means ignoring some of the document’s fine print.  Rather than an attempt by government to grease the skids and assist VMC in vacating rapidly gentrifying Gay Street for new digs on skid row (something the county’s money had essentially already accomplished), VMC’s move is just business as usual in the non-profit sector, tailoring programs to fit available funding.  It’s just that sort of short-term thinking among Knoxville’s homeless agencies that has resulted in the bewildering amount of “mission creep” and overlap among the competing providers (something the Ten-Year-Plan aims, in theory, to address).

There are, lest I sound too cynical this time around, some good points about VMC’s proposal. Sixty or so homeless people will, assuming the program funding is forthcoming, benefit from stable, secure and supervised housing. And the building will be preserved. VMC’s plan to combine low-income housing and historic-preservation tax credits proves that the shelters are learning, at least, when it comes to real-estate development. But when advocates or opponents claim that the project will either help end chronic homelessness or reverse Fourth and Gill’s steady gentrification, call me skeptical. 

Since my last prediction turned out to be prophetic, let me offer up another: In 10 years the chronically homeless will still be with us and government will be looking to grease the skids and move the shelters away from an area that, as a rejuvenated downtown and Fourth and Gill grow together, looks little like today’s skid row.