In the ’Hood
Fourth and Gill’s perception of crime
Finding a place
Knoxville’s plan to end chronic homelessness
Nestled quaintly in the pocket East of Broadway and just North of the Old City, Fourth and Gill is a neighborhood that’s either plagued by crime or as safe as Mayberry, depending on whom you ask. A crisp fall day assures pedestrians and cyclists a picturesque view of lovely Victorian turrets and sprawling porches, as well as joggers trailing pooches (poop bags in hand, mind you), toddlers churning their Big Wheel pedals furiously, and gardeners planting bulbs. And while some residents will tell you they’ve never had a problem with crime, others insist the neighborhood is, despite appearances, in the throes of a full-on crime wave. Knoxville’s Police Department is glad to report that, by their records, crime is on the decline in the area. And yet, one resident claims that she hears of at least one break-in per day.
Why the discrepancy? For a long time Fourth and Gill was regarded as a relatively derelict area with aging houses that mainly attracted young bohemian types. In the past couple of decades, however, many of those dilapidated turn-of-the-century houses have gotten much-needed renovations, catapulting the neighborhood into its current gentrifying trend. Nowadays, its population is a charmingly diverse little puzzle of urban living, from just-out-of-college kids renting spaces in cut-up houses to families living in lavishly redone estates, and everything in between.
What hasn’t changed is the neighborhood’s proximity to downtown, which classifies it, though many residents would shudder to think it, as inner city. “I’m absolutely aware that it’s an inner-city area,” says one outspoken resident named Scott Dossey, whose zealous posts on the neighborhood Internet group, a Yahoo! Group designated by the area’s zip code of 37917, have stirred up some controversy.
“I still absolutely love the neighborhood, but I do think there’s a problem,” Dossey says. “The people that live here are good honest people, and it chafes my ass that people come in and deface it.” After multiple vandalisms on his home and vehicle break-ins, Dossey says he finally took matters into his own hands, eventually catching a car burglar and holding him at gunpoint. “I persuaded him to change his mind,” he says.
Despite the neighborhood website’s flurry of burglary reports, KPD’s records indicate an overall 23 percent decrease in criminal activity since last year. Comparing this year’s reports between January and September with those of last year, there has been one fewer burglary reported, one fewer vehicle theft, and seven fewer theft-from-building charges, which involve the looting of grills, plants or tools left outside the house. Altogether, there were 39 reports made last year in those nine months compared to 30 this year. Those numbers don’t indicate a crime wave by any standards. “When you compare that 23 percent decrease with the rest of the city, which has seen a half-percent increase overall, Fourth and Gill is doing very well,” says KPD spokesman Darrel DeBusk. “The problem isn’t as widespread as people will have you believe.”
One theory for the discrepancy is that many crimes go unreported, and not just out of laziness. “The neighborhood newsletter is always just riddled with crime,” says resident Tom Loftis. “But people would rather eat [the cost of] a stolen lawn mower than report it.” Homeowners don’t want to see property values go down, he says, and neither do real estate agents. “There’s an undertone on the website that we should handle crime on our own. They discourage us from reporting petty theft, but I think if the police knew what was going on, there would be neighborhood patrols,” says Loftis.
Many residents believe the area’s crime can be attributed to the proximity of homeless organizations like Knoxville Area Rescue Ministries (KARM) and Salvation Army. “I absolutely think the perpetrators have been from KARM. There is an overwhelming number of people abusing the system,” says Dossey. “I would like to see the city give [homeless people] 20 bucks and a bus ticket to go somewhere else.”
On the other hand, the homeless could be an easy target for blame. Some neighbors theorize that nearby second-hand retailers hand over cash for goods that might be stolen. James Hale, a resident at Guy B. Love Towers who lived at the Salvation Army while he was homeless a few years back, points out, “How are they gonna haul stuff? Most people that are homeless don’t have cars.” Also, he says that most of the homeless he met on the street weren’t criminal, just lost and a little too comfortable. “They have that shelter and free food. In that small area there are three places you can go: Salvation Army, the Mission and the Day Room. I never heard of anyone stealing.”
Officer DeBusk can’t give statistics, but he wagers that the homeless “are the easiest to point out. Instantly, they get the blame. And some offenders may be homeless, but I certainly couldn’t place all the blame on them.”
Whether there’s a connection between homelessness and Fourth and Gill’s crime issues is a matter of opinion at this point. A neighbor could poach a fern from a porch just as easily as (and perhaps with more cause than) a transient. But then, there’s the proliferation of area pawnshops that might buy anything from DVDs to lawn mowers from someone who might steal or happen upon them, homeless or not. Maybe there’s a bit of both going on. Above all, KPD would advise reporting crimes. “If you’ve been a victim, we’re going to try to help you,” says DeBusk. “But it’s not an area that’s being devastated by crime.”
Finding a place
At an Oct. 7 meeting to announce a “Ten-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness,” Philip Mangano, Director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, commented on the national homeless crisis. “We’ve unconsciously fallen into managing the crisis, shuffling them from city to city, shelter to shelter,” he stated. “That isn’t what homeless people need and want. They don’t want a pill or a meal; they always say they want a place.”
“Chronic homeless” refers to those who have been homeless for at least a year or have had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years. Roger Nooe, a UT social-work professor and chairman of the task force that will implement that plan, has devoted his life to researching homelessness. It’s critical to get the chronic homeless out of the cycle, says Nooe, because they are draining about half of the funding at emergency shelters—money that should be spent dealing with the acute (or temporarily) homeless. “Even if people say they want a place to live, they have trouble maintaining the places,” he says. “This plan will help them maintain it.”
Getting the chronic homeless into housing is the first hurdle, but after that, the plan calls on the community to get involved. It asks churches to sponsor a few people and pay their rent, rather than having a soup kitchen. It calls on healthcare providers to volunteer services. Most importantly, it requests that employers contact service providers with available jobs. James Hale, a Guy B. Love Towers resident who was recently homeless, says that since he had to quit his job in the UT cafeteria to undergo yet another in a chain of knee surgeries, he’s had trouble finding work. “At the Salvation Army, they say they tried to get me work, but they just set me up with day-labor jobs,” he says. He now gets $10 a day to take care of his mother and grandmother—enough to pay rent, but not to live on, he says.
Increasing economic opportunities is a key part of the plan. One program already provided by Knoxville Area Rescue Ministries and Second Harvest Food Bank called the Abundant Life Kitchen offers help such as culinary and vocational training. Dr. Nooe believes such programs are helpful to those who are able-bodied but have perhaps lost their will. “I don’t believe people are happy about their situation,” he says. “But the longer they are on the street, the more apathy there is. It’s sort of a learned helplessness.
One of the emergency programs participating in the plan is Volunteer Ministry Center, which is presently on Gay Street but has plans to move shop to the old KARM building on Broadway. Though she’s not clear on the timetable, VMC director Ginny Weatherstone is hopeful that the move will help ease North Knoxville’s problems rather than, as many fear, just concentrate the homeless in one area. At the new building, the number of permanent men’s apartments will increase from 16 to 25, and there will be an additional eight for women.
Also, the new facility will have an outdoor area in the rear, where people can hang out during the day, off the street and out of trouble. “The biggest benefit is the proximity to the nighttime shelters,” she says. “Right now, the Gay Street viaduct is sort of this unsupervised space where people migrate…. I feel the more accessible we are, the more people will benefit.” She also anticipates taking more of a “tough love” approach. “Our goal is to raise the discomfort level of homelessness. I would like for every homeless person to get to the point where they don’t want to be homeless anymore,” she says, summing up the goal of the plan.
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