Quest to End Chronic Homelessness

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It's hard to imagine a more difficult job than assuming responsibility for ending chronic homelessness in Knoxville. The approximately 800 unfortunates who fit this definition suffer from a witches' brew of infirmities and addictions that almost defy bringing stability to their lives.

It's equally hard to imagine that the person who has taken on this responsibility would be an M.B.A. who has spent the past four years as a project manager for one of Knoxville's premier development firms, Lawler Wood. But such is the case, and starting June 1 Jon Lawler assumed his post as director of the Knoxville/Knox County Ten-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness, reporting jointly to City Mayor Bill Haslam and County Mayor Mike Ragsdale.

His new role isn't as much of a career change for the 43-year-old Lawler as it might seem. During his years at Lawler Wood, he was primarily focused on affordable housing projects including the renovations of Summit Towers and Morningside Gardens here in Knoxville. Previously, he spent five years partnering with the Rev. James Davis on a program known as Restoration Outreach that sought to mentor troubled youth in then-downtrodden Mechanicsville. The black pastor, who was a reformed drug dealer, and the white scion of one of Knoxville's most prominent families made an odd couple, but by all reports they worked well and productively together.

Getting Knoxville's chronic homeless housed and then bringing enough stability to their lives to keep them domiciled will draw upon both Lawler's expertise in subsidized housing development and his bent for social work. â“When Bill Haslam held out this role to me, I immediately thought it's something I would love to do, and I think it's very doable,â” he says.

Others who've been involved in the formulation of the two mayors' 10-year plan aren't as clear on that. â“Going to Mars might be easier,â” ventures Andy Black, president of Helen Ross McNabb Center, whose long-standing role as a provider of mental health services has been augmented in recent years by alcohol and drug rehabilitation programs.

Roger Nooe, the retired UT professor of social work who's been in the forefront of local efforts to deal with homelessness for many years, has found that a large majority of the homeless population has mental health or substance abuse problems or both.

The plan takes a â“Housing Firstâ” approach to addressing the problem, which has been embraced by many other cities spurred by Philip Magnano, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.

â“This represents a philosophical shift on what needs to take place,â” Lawler explains. â“Previously, housing was something you earned if you stayed in a treatment program. Now, we're saying get them into housing first and then see to it that they get supportive services that meet their needs. It's an approach that's already working well in other parts of the country, and there's every reason to believe it can work here.â”

Just identifying and engaging the chronically homeless will be a challenge. The 10-year plan calls for â“the development of a comprehensive and assertive outreach teamâ” to do so. It also calls for â“the implementation of a Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) [where] more reliable, comprehensive information about homelessness in our community can be found.â” And Lawler says, â“Getting them all on HMIS is a big item I've got to address.â”

The bigger challenge will be developing permanent housing for them with supportive services. At present, Knox Area Rescue Ministries (KARM) offers emergency shelter for several hundred, and the Salvation Army houses many more temporarily while they are in its rehabilitation programs. But permanent housing is in very short supply.

The two entities that Lawler sees as most promising for providing more are the Volunteer Ministry Center (VMC) and Helen Ross McNabb. VMC is in the process of a $3.8 million renovation of what had been the notorious Fifth Avenue Motel into a 57-unit apartment complex drawing in large part on tax credits for its funding. McNabb, which already has 25 units surrounding its Friendship House on Lamar Street, is planning another 24, contingent on getting a grant from the Federal Home Bank Board. Beyond that, Lawler is â“having conversations with several private developers,â” but he's frank to say that an interim goal of having 200 units in place within two years is probably not attainable.

In every case, support services are a key to residential permanence. â“A case worker is the one who makes it a reality,â” Lawler says. He believes that VMC, with funding primarily from the faith-based organizations that support it, and McNabb, which has funding commitments from the city and the county, can meet needs that range from seeing to it that the mentally ill take their prescribed medications to dealing with the problems posed by substance abuse.

Yet Lawler's own $200,000 annual budget doesn't even include funding for an overall service coordinator, who's considered to be a linchpin of the 10-year plan, let alone the outreach teams and case managers the coordinator would oversee. â“Once I get my arms around what needs to happen, I'll be having conversations with the two mayors about funding,â” he says.

One of the things that needs to happen, per the plan, is to have everyone who is released from a mental hospital or from jail for drunkenness protected by a safety net rather than dumped onto the street, as is prevalently the case at present. But reaching out to all of them seems just as forbidding as getting them all housed. â" Joe Sullivan

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