by Matt Edens
What to do with those of us who are forced out on the street, without a roof over our heads and no one to turn to for support? No, I'm not going to pile onto the political circus that's currently shaking up the sixth floor of the City County Building, east of the elevators. After all, power-mad Machiavellian mayors aren't exactly unprecedented around Knoxville (although you'd have been more likely to find Victor in line at the Cumberland Avenue Krystal, coupon in hand, than putting lobster on the taxpayer's tab).
Instead of referring to the growing number of government figures departing county government in disgrace, answering my opening question is essentially the job description of Jon Lawler. He was recently hired by both the county and city to head their Ten-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness. A VP at the development firm of Lawler Wood, he brings a lot to the table, as the saying goes. According to its website, Lawler Wood's affordable housing portfolio amounts to more than 6,000 units across the Eastern U.S., with some 1,200 in Knox County. It's no wonder that, from the official press release announcing the hire to Joe Sullivan's Insights piece in the July 26 issue of Metro Pulse , plenty of people have applauded Lawler's decision to take the position. Mayor Haslam, for one, is â“very excited to have someone with Jon's background and capabilities come inâ” and tackle what may be one of the city's thorniest issues.
In light of such praise from people I respect, it almost pains me to point out that, among the many things Lawler brings to the table, there's a little baggage. It is, ironically, the same thing that makes him perhaps uniquely qualified to implement â“Housing First:â” his connection to the Knoxville development firm that's almost synonymous around town with industrial-scale affordable housing. And that has the potential, in some neighborhood and homeowner circles, to make people nervous.
â“Homelessness is a community issue,â” is an oft-repeated mantra in Knoxville/Knox County's 10-year plan. But a simple look at where the vast majority of shelter beds and services are located reveals the somewhat obfuscated facts behind the plan's statement that â“some neighborhoods, especially those in the inner city, felt that they experience a disproportionate amount of problems associated with the chronically homeless population.â” The city's Fifth and Broadway Task Force has lately done a fair job of defusing some of the tension between Knoxville's providers of homeless services and the neighborhoods surrounding the street corner the majority of those services call home.
Further defusing depends, in large part, on Lawler's leadership. In his interview with Sullivan, Lawler was up front about the fact that the plan's interim goal of 200 new units of permanent housing for the chronically homeless is probably unobtainable. But consider the two projects identified as holding the most promise towards meeting that goal. One is the Volunteer Ministry Center's rehab of the former Fifth Avenue Motel into 57 efficiency apartments aimed at providing permanent housing for the chronically homeless, literally next door to both the Salvation Army and Knox Area Rescue Ministries emergency shelters. The other is The Helen Ross McNabb Center's plan to add 24 additional units to the 25 that already surround Friendship House, its client-support center on the southern fringe of Fourth and Gill, five blocks from the Fifth Avenue Motel and the shelters along Broadway. Whether the housing is temporary or permanent, the concentration of homeless services continues.
Striving to meet the plan's 200-unit goal, Lawler told Sullivan he's â“having conversations with several private developers.â” Might I suggest that, building upon the Fifth and Broadway Task Force's example, those neighborhoods that â“felt that they experience a disproportionate amount of problems associated with the chronically homeless populationâ” are included in the discussion. And on the front end, please? Not discussion of the â“here's where we're going to site it, care to comment?â” sort. And I'd urge the city and county's new â“Homelessness Czarâ” to always keep in mind that permanent housing for the homeless â“distributed throughout the city and countyâ” is one of the plan's desired outcomes. Lawler's experience and connections, along with the commitment from the city and county, can bring a lot of resources to the fight against homelessness, but they should be wielded carefully, so as not to roll over neighborhoods and homeowners in the process.
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