An East Knoxville group charges their Burlington branch is “migrating” away from those who most need it
Out of the Cold
Services come together to aid the homeless
A group of angry citizens led by Elwood Roach, a former Sea Ray employee who describes himself only as an “average citizen,” has filed a formal complaint with the state Title VI Compliance Commission charging that the library’s prospective site was chosen for racial reasons. Roach’s letter, sent on behalf of the Five Points Library Committee charging, flatly, that “The library is being constructed in Holston Hills to fundamentally allow White people to avoid traveling to the Black community for library services.”
Holston Hills, at the eastern end of East Knoxville, is praised as one of Knoxville’s few mixed-race middle-class subdivisions, but it’s still predominantly white, especially compared to other sections of East Knoxville.
The current location of the Burlington branch is adjacent to the old community of Burlington, a less affluent community where the races are more equally balanced. Before 1993, Roach recalls, the branch had been located several blocks closer to the city center, in a neighborhood that had been predominantly black.
The latest move is less than half a mile farther east, but Roach says he’s troubled by the apparent “migration” of East Knoxville’s branch library from black sections into whiter sections. As a member of the Empowerment Zone board, Roach says his group has advocated building a branch library in Five Points, the inner-city business district that has been the focus of much public and private effort at neighborhood improvement in recent years.
At Five Points, Roach says, a library would be accessible to Austin East High School, Vine Middle School, and Pellissippi State Community College—as well as large numbers of residents who don’t have access to computers at home and have to rely on libraries for such amenities.
Roach said his group took their concerns to the county, but now suspects that as early as July, 2004, the Ragsdale administration had already decided where the new branch would go.
“I believe something had been agreed to between the mayor and Town Hall East,” he says, referring to the booster organization which Roach describes as a “suburban” group.
Roach says he attended a public meeting in the Jacob Building at Chilhowee Park prepared to discuss the library siting in detail; he and his allies were frustrated when the meeting emphasized mainly library amenities and functions, without much discussion of the hard tacks of siting it. “We broke into different groups, and the other groups didn’t talk about location,” he says. “It kind of watered down the issue.”
He attended another meeting on the issue in January. “They pretty much had made their decision by then, but they said they hadn’t,” he says.
Roach tried to attend several library-board meetings, but was frustrated that many of the meetings of the board, stripped of its power after the library-director controversy a couple of years ago, were canceled without notice. Governing control of the library currently rests purely with the county mayor’s office. Roach says a meeting with Mayor Ragsdale himself was unsatisfying.
“It’s been kind of a frustrating process to go through,” he says.
Knox County Library Director Larry Frank defers to Ragsdale’s office, where he says the siting decision was made, and refers questions to attorney John Owens of the Knox County Law Director’s office.
Last Friday, Owens says, the county received a request from the Tennessee Department of State to answer the committee’s complaints.
“That did go through the Purchasing Department,” Owens says. “There were a lot of eyes on the process. It would seem to me that it was open for public discussion, and done in accord with our policies and procedures.” The office of the county law director will make a formal response to Roach’s complaint this month, and Owens says they won’t comment further until that time.
Out of the Cold
Dubbed “Project Homeless Connect,” the event, which began last year in San Francisco, will be held simultaneously in 19 cities across the country this week. The project is a one-day outreach program to bring service providers and volunteers together to introduce homeless persons to their options. Its methodology is intertwined with the growing movement to deal with homelessness in a new and collaborative way. Many of these cities have also adopted plans similar to Knoxville’s 10-year plan to end homelessness, which aims to eradicate “chronic homelessness” through increased cooperation between community and service providers. “In the mayor’s 10-year plan, the idea is to get community groups, faith-based groups and services together to coordinate efforts in order to maximize services and not duplicate them,” says city spokesperson Amy Nolan. “It’s really a way to connect homeless people with the most suitable services for them.”
Technically, a chronic homeless person is one that has been homeless for at least one year or who has had four episodes of homelessness in his or her lifetime. “They are a small population of the whole homeless community, but they are the most trouble and the most expensive,” says Ginny Weatherstone, director at Volunteer Ministries, who also points out that this group absorbs most of the funding allotted for hospital, jail and mental-health costs. “These are the folks that have tried and failed repeatedly. But this plan is challenging us to try new approaches and do things differently than we’ve done them before.”
On hand Thursday will be workers from area shelters as well as volunteers, legal services and medical services provided through Remote Area Medical, a nonprofit organization that provides medical relief in isolated or disaster-stricken areas. Lay volunteers will mostly accompany people from station to station, where professionals will screen them to determine each specific need.
While Knoxville’s inner-city homeless population is the most visible, there are also groups living in homeless camps on the city’s fringe. “We’ll have vans going out in the four directions to pick people up on the outskirts of town as well as from the inner city,” Weatherstone says. After evaluation, though, each will be returned to his or her pick-up point. “The hope is not to bring all the homeless downtown,” she says. “If we can form relationships with them, we can start sending services to them and hopefully get them into housing and employment where they are.”
The 10-year plan takes a practical approach to pulling people out of dire situations, as does Project Homeless Connect. Volunteer Ministry workers will be providing birth certificates and identification, which are vital tools in acquiring a job and even housing in some cases. There will also be representatives from the public defender’s office to help people deal with any outstanding charges.
Essentially, the concept goes beyond the old way of just providing a bowl of soup and a warm bed. It’s not unlike the “teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for life” anecdote. But the shelters can’t do it alone. “One of the main pitches of the 10-year plan is that homelessness is a community problem, not just a problem for service providers,” says Weatherstone. “I think those opportunities [for citizens to get involved] are going to emerge. Certainly the neighborhoods around downtown will have a role.”
A vital part of the 10-year plan will be for local businesses, groups and individuals to sponsor people in their journey out of homelessness, providing a community safety net. “Anyone that is interested in volunteering is welcome to call our 311 number and volunteers will tell them about specific opportunities to help out,” says Nolan.
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