Two years ago this October, John Robbins moved from the Knox Area Rescue Ministry, a homeless shelter downtown, into an apartment in Montgomery Village, a 452-unit low-income housing development in the Vestal community of South Knoxville. Robbins doesn’t recall how many months he’d spent at KARM, which is where he was taken after being discharged from Blount Memorial Hospital for treatment of manic-depression, anxiety, and seizures. Blount Memorial, incidentally, is also where he was born 49 years ago. But all in all, he says he spent about two years living on the streets.
Today, resting at his kitchen table in a flowered red Hawaiian shirt, his pill box laid out on top of a toaster oven among six bottles of medications, Robbins drifts from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other, at points manifesting seemingly contradictory feelings simultaneously.
“My girlfriend that I had, she tried to commit suicide,” he begins his story, his voice beginning to loosen and blood rushing to his forehead. “But that wasn’t right, and then she took it out on me, so I left and stayed at the Blount Memorial Hospital for a while.” When he could no longer stay there, Fred, a family friend whom Robbins describes as though everyone should know him by his first name, took him to the shelter in Knoxville. “He helped me get back to the mission because that’s the only place he knew to put me.”
Now sitting in a place of his own, there’s little doubt Robbins is better off than he was on the streets. He’s on disability, and receiving treatment for both his physical and mental illnesses. While the seizures persist—he’s had one in the past six months—they’re not as frequent as they once were, and he’s managing his mental health issues. Yet he’ll be the first to say his life is far from whole.
“The way I really look at it, this world has destroyed me, because I’m not happy. God knows I’m not happy,” he says, as pained laughter turns to deep, anxious sobs, “but I have to go on because I have no other choice in this. And I’ve told my brother that God’s gotta get me out of this because I can’t do it.” Lurking in his remark are thoughts of suicide, but he says that’s not an option. “I can’t go that route. But the thing about it is—the pills. I live with the pills. I’m living on the pills just to stay alive. I don’t see no happiness in that.”
Dyrl Higdon is Robbins’ case manager at the Volunteer Ministry Center, a non-profit, interfaith homeless agency downtown. Rather than celebrating Robbins’ upcoming two-year anniversary at Montgomery Village, Higdon—who was once the kitchen manager at VMC, when it was still primarily a day shelter—would like to see Robbins move to Minvilla Manor. The former motel on Broadway and 5th Avenue is set to open in October as Knoxville’s first 57 units of permanent supportive housing constructed under the Knoxville/Knox County Ten-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness. Higdon believes his client would benefit from receiving on-site case management, staff available round the clock in case he has a seizure, and some control of who can visit and when. “Appropriate housing is what we’d like to have, but unfortunately there’s not enough of that right now,” Higdon says.
And that—the lack of appropriate housing for the chronically homeless, like John Robbins—is at the eye of what some see as the next political storm in Knoxville. As the Office of the Ten-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness has moved into its fourth year (the plan was adopted in October, 2005), Knoxville has seen three potential sites for permanent supportive housing fall through amid vocal opposition from citizens, city and county officials, and a former city mayor. Dueling citizen groups have formed around the plan, and until last week, the opposition group, TYP Choice, was attempting to kill it outright through a petition drive. The group pulled the effort two days before state and local elections—apparently, and to really no one’s surprise, because the 15,000 valid signatures necessary to place referenda on the ballot in November couldn’t be gained.
The petition failure gives the Office of the Ten-Year Plan some breathing room as it embarks on a campaign to educate the public about its work. However, the respite may be short-lived. TYP Choice spokesman Ron Peabody says his group will continue opposing the plan and return to its petition drive next year, in the midst of city elections. Even without his group or the petition, the fate of the effort is unclear as the two administrations that adopted it—Bill Haslam’s and Mike Ragsdale’s—head for the exits, and the legislative bodies in both governments seem less and less supportive of individual projects, if not the plan itself.
So how did a plan to help the homeless, one that’s been around for five years, become so contentious?
The Master Plan
The answer to that is both simple and complex—simple because it boils down to people not wanting housing for people like Robbins in their neighborhoods, and complex because the plan itself represents a holistic, multifaceted approach to treating the causes of homelessness, taking into account decades of research, best practices from across the country, and Knoxville’s own geography and communities. Indeed, anyone who dives headfirst into the plan quickly realizes just how deep the water is.
For casual observers, the Ten-Year Plan is likely synonymous with permanent supportive housing—in other words, where the chronically homeless will live. Yet those more involved, from city councilmen to county commissioners to case managers to the homeless themselves, say while permanent supportive housing constitutes a key part of the plan, it is but one part of an overall strategy to change the way we deal with the problem of chronic homelessness. (See sidebar—Why Does the Ten-Year Plan Focus on the Chronic Homeless? )
The plan has nine basic components, eight of which have little or nothing to do with permanent supportive housing and have been mostly ignored in the conversation thus far. These initiatives focus on collecting better data on the homeless, preventing the discharge of the homeless from hospitals and jails into the streets, and increasing the coordination and effectiveness of resources, among other goals. It’s this last one, increasing coordination and effectiveness of resources, that Volunteer Ministry Center CEO Ginny Weatherstone has witnessed firsthand.
In many ways, Weatherstone’s organization represents the transformation of homeless services in Knoxville under the TYP. About two years ago, VMC moved from its long-time location on the corner of Jackson Avenue and Gay Street to a brand new building on 5th Avenue and Broadway, across from what will become Minvilla Manor (which it will own). At the former site, VMC served primarily as a day shelter, as KARM does today. “In the old building—which was just a dump—in the old building, it used to be, ‘Y’all come, stay as much as you want. Here’s the showers, lunch is at noon,’” Weatherstone says. VMC had some social workers, but few took advantage of their services. “The emphasis was on, let’s get everybody fed, let’s get everybody who wants a place to stay tonight—let’s make sure they’ve got a place to stay...and it got pretty frustrating. It got pretty frustrating, particularly because we were seeing people who were homeless for 15 or 20 years, and that’s not a good thing.”
The building itself was split between two levels. The upstairs contained a dining hall and large lobby, and the downstairs some comfortable chairs and a television. As part of the initial effort to move to greater accountability and expectations, a goal of the Ten-Year Plan, VMC announced it would start requiring the homeless to meet with a social worker as a precondition to going downstairs. Those who didn’t would still be welcome, but those comfy chairs and the TV would be off limits.
“‘Hell no, I ain’t working with no social worker!’” was the response Weatherstone recalls hearing to this new policy. But finally, the day came when it was enacted, and it happened that the Knoxville Utilities Board had just done some work in the front of the building, so there was fresh cement on the sidewalk. “When I came in the next morning, somebody had scratched into the cement, ‘Mrs. Ginny W. is a bitch,’” Weatherstone remembers, laughing. “So it was not without its trauma.”
The trauma demonstrated to her the degree to which a sense of entitlement and a lack of expectations had been institutionalized. “I think the greatest insult to a person is to expect nothing. And that’s what we had been doing. So we started to expect some things, and the people who performed, who delivered, got some benefits,” Weatherstone says. As those expectations increased, VMC evolved from just another day shelter focused on maintaining the homeless to an organization focused on helping those who are serious get off the streets and return to housing and society.
That process begins when someone decides he or she wants to stop living on the streets and attends a housing workshop, held at VMC on the first and third Mondays of each month. There, the person meets with a case manager, like Higdon or Matt Nance, who determines if he or she is right for the program. “Everything we do, whether it be legal aid or addiction treatment or mental health services, it’s all geared toward allowing this person to sign a lease and eventually have their own place,” Higdon says. “So whatever issues they have, if it’s not going to lead to a case plan that can get them housing, we’re not going to be able to help them.”
That works both ways. Someone can have too many issues to qualify for housing, such as recent arrests, severe mental health issues, or any conviction for methamphetamine manufacturing or pedophilia; or not enough issues to warrant that level of case management, in which case the person is referred to other programs.
If the case manager deems the person—let’s call him Joe—to be a good fit, he or she sits down with Joe to create a case plan, essentially an agreement between the case manager and the client on what this person needs to do to get into housing. In industry lingo, this is known as Housing First, which means a person isn’t required to be clean and sober before receiving housing.
Peabody and others have criticized this aspect of the Ten-Year Plan. “From a moral and ethical standpoint, how can we enable drug addiction with public dollars?” Peabody asked in a May 30 op-ed in the News Sentinel.
But the practice isn’t unique to Knoxville, and has been endorsed both by the Interagency Council on Homelessness, the federal entity that tracks homeless programs across the nation, and more recently by the White House. And Nance says there’s a misunderstanding about what this strategy means locally. “Housing First doesn’t mean, ‘Oh, you’re Joe Homeless and you’re smoking crack here in my office, here are your keys, I hope you do better when you get that apartment,’” says Nance, who before coming to VMC spent three years managing the men’s shelter at KARM. “Housing First means, you know, you need to start going to three [Alcoholics Anonymous] meetings a week, and you need to complete a one-month intensive program, and you need to stay clean. And then we’re going to simultaneously be working on getting you into housing because we know that when you’re not living on streets, you’re going to experience more success in your addiction recovery.”
Nance also points out that any violation of the law—which would obviously include a narcotics charge—is a violation of a client’s case plan, and thus a violation of his lease and could result in eviction. “Any sort of accusation that permanent supportive housing is going to be tolerating drugs is foolishness,” Nance says.
Returning to Joe, when he comes into VMC for that first meeting, he’s probably already carrying another part of the Ten-Year Plan that makes what case managers do far more efficient: his Homeless Management Information System, or HMIS, card. With his permission, Joe’s information has been entered into this database at one of 14 participating agencies, and so now his case manager can know how long he’s been homeless, what issues he’s dealing with, whether he’s had case management before or been placed into housing—essentially his history as a homeless person.
Begun locally in 2004, the database is funded primarily by the Department of Housing and Urban Development but also by the TYP. With the data, the city, county, state, federal government, and service providers can gain far greater insights into this notoriously hard-to-track population, and measure the outcomes for the people they’re trying to help. David Patterson, who directs HMIS and teaches at UT’s College of Social Work, where HMIS is based, says it’s a game changer. “The intention is to coordinate care so you’re not having a duplication of services,” Patterson says, “and so what we always say is that if you don’t look the client up in HMIS before you start working with them, you’re working blind, because you’ve been blind to everything else that everyone else has done to try to help them.” Patterson and his students are working to improve reporting by agencies and provide better data.
So, say Joe qualifies for case management at VMC and agrees to the terms of his case plan. Depending on Joe’s needs and housing availability, actually getting Joe from the streets into housing can take up to 16 months. As part of the Ten-Year Plan, so far case managers have placed some 300 people in Knoxville’s Community Development Corporation housing, aka public housing (which, Weatherstone points out, doesn’t require sobriety either). That’s worked fine for some people—especially the higher-functioning individuals, many of whom are not chronically homeless. The Office of the Ten-Year Plan says around 87 percent of those 300 are still in housing after the first year.
But KCDC housing isn’t appropriate for people like Robbins, says Higdon. He and Nance say the chronically homeless are more vulnerable and so require more support. “We’ve been trying to do something with public housing that it was never intended for,” Nance says. “The KCDC housing projects were never intended for single, mentally ill people—individuals needing case management. It wasn’t ever intended for that, it wasn’t set up for that, it’s not conducive to that.”
One client of Higdon’s, a 44-year-old woman who asked to be referred to as “Mickey,” lives in Austin Homes, just off East Summit Hill Drive. She was once regularly beaten by her first husband, and suffers from manic depression. “Austin Homes is like crack city,” Nance says. “She not only has to overcome her internal struggles, but she has to overcome the external atmosphere that she’s in.” Through psychotherapy and high-dose medication, Higdon says Mickey’s improved a great deal, and he hopes to take her off his case load, to graduate her from the program, in the next few months. But, he says, she’s thrived in spite of her surroundings, not because of them.
“The thought of mentally ill, or of really vulnerable persons, having to deal with that environment—that’s a hard environment for any of us to deal with, and we’re capable people,” Higdon says. “That’s just not a good thought for them to have to deal with those issues, because they’re prey for people that have bad intentions.”
Which brings us back to the thorny process of site selection, those individual battles over where to put permanent supportive housing. The Ten-Year Plan calls for creating these sites for the chronically homeless around the city and county, but no neighborhood thus far has shown great enthusiasm for accept housing into its neighborhood: Minvilla was fought by North Knoxville residents when it was proposed, and Flenniken, scheduled to be the second site, is still being bitterly opposed by some residents and business owners in South Knoxville.
Joe Manichiellio is a South Knoxville resident who moved here from Boston two years ago. He says the Vestal community, where Flenniken is, simply can’t handle more public housing. “I think the Flenniken School project, as they envision, is going to destroy the neighborhood,” Manichiellio says. He believes the two case workers who will be on-site are not enough to handle the population—and whose funding, he points out, isn’t guaranteed—and he’s also suspicious of the motives of those in the Office of the Ten-Year Plan and in the “homeless industry.”
That suspicion is shared by others. Newman Seay, president of the Vestal Community Organization, which opposes both the Flenniken site and the plan as a whole, says he believes VMC, Helen Ross McNabb, which provides mental health services, and those in the Office of the Ten-Year Plan are working not to help the homeless but in pursuit of their own selfish interests. “They’re the ones that are taking advantage of the homeless,” Seay says. “I call them bloodsuckers. They’re like leeches. They don’t work for a living, and they take advantage of disadvantaged peoples.” Seay and others point out that the Southeastern Housing Foundation LLC, the non-profit, low-income housing developer that’s partnered with the Office of the TYP to develop permanent supportive housing (and not contracted with the TYP, as some have suggested), is taking a 15 percent fee for its work, the highest allowed. And they are deeply suspicious of Jon Lawler, director of the Office of the Ten-Year Plan, and his connection to Lawler Wood, a prominent development company begun by his father.
Both Manichiello and Seay say their concerns have been marginalized as simple not-in-my-backyardism. “We keep being told we’re against the homeless,” Manichiellio says. “We’re not. We just want a program that will work, that’s going to sustain itself.”
To a certain degree, these concerns are to be expected. “It’s very common, and I don’t think there’s a clear and simple answer to what you do about it,” says Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, a non-profit group based in Washington, D.C. “It’s common in lower-income neighborhoods, where they feel they’ve been over-impacted with siting in their neighborhoods, and it’s common in upper-income neighborhoods that just don’t feel it should be in their backyard.”
Still, that communities may naturally oppose housing in their neighborhoods isn’t a license to mismanage its implementation, which is exactly what former Mayor Victor Ashe says has happened. “They have managed to bungle it, and there’s not been leadership above there to go out and promote it. I mean, the mayor’s running for governor, so he’s not going to touch it,” he says. Over the past year, the disclosure of three West Knoxville sites as potential locations for permanent supportive housing—on Debusk Lane and Teaberry Lane, and in Lakeshore Park—created still more resentment and ill-will among neighborhoods, and has threatened to unite geographically and economically disparate groups in a push to kill the plan altogether.
Peabody, like many others, says he wasn’t prompted to examine the plan until it came into his neighborhood. “I had never read the plan,” Peabody offers, “and I think, as of today if you talk to 100,000 people in Knox County, I’d be surprised if 3 percent of them have read the plan.” His involvement stems from the designation of a possible housing site on Teaberry Lane, which runs behind West Town Mall and near his home. It was later determined to be unsuitable because of a sinkhole on the property.
Ashe says his opposition to the Ten-Year Plan begins and ends with its connection to the city’s park system, part of his legacy as mayor. Earlier this year it came to his attention that Southeastern Housing was considering building on five acres of public land at Lakeshore Park, once the state’s largest mental institution. The Office of the TYP now says there are no plans to build at Lakeshore, and Councilman Duane Grieve is sponsoring an ordinance that would rezone all city parks to prohibit this or any development.
These two sites, plus the one on Debusk Lane, raised many questions for both the opponents of the Ten-Year Plan and for the Office itself. One thing there’s some confusion about is who chooses the sites. Lawler says that’s actually done not by his office but by Southeastern Housing. Regardless of who selects them, Peabody and others want to know exactly what qualifies a site to be chosen.
Lawler says that criteria is the same as it would be for any low-income development: It must be zoned correctly (for multi-family housing), be in a low-crime area, have access to a grocery store, and have access to public transportation.
Yet Lakeshore doesn’t have bus access, and neither does Debusk Lane. Lawler says Lakeshore had access before Knoxville Area Transit changed its routes, and at Debusk Lane, his office thought it could employ a van to ferry residents to and from a bus stop, an idea some would-be clients ultimately opposed. Debusk Lane was voted down 15-4 in November by County Commission.
Baloney, Baloney, Steak, Baloney
Aside from site criteria, a key issue is when the public is notified that a location in a neighbor is being considered. With Flenniken, many felt they were notified too late, that the neighborhood was “bullied” into taking permanent supportive housing. With Debusk Lane and Teaberry Lane, the Office of the TYP attempted to answer that criticism by notifying the public as early as possible, when Southeastern Housing took out an option on the properties, or an agreement to scope, appraise, and make an offer on the site within a fixed period of time. Michael Dunthorn, in the Office of the TYP, says the downside at Teaberry was that “the developer didn’t know about some of the sinkhole issues that ultimately made it unbuildable, because he was trying to let people know so early in process that he didn’t have the answers yet.”
At Debusk Lane, a similar timing issue arose. The option taken out on the property specified the price would be the lesser of $500,000 or the appraised value. When that information was made public, the opposition focused on the cost, arguing $500,000 was far too high. But the appraised value ended up being $177,000, which the seller would have accepted, and so the conversation presumably could have been different. These two events showed the Office of the TYP that releasing information too early could unnecessarily upset the public, creating more opposition and the perception of mismanagement, without adding any new sites to the plan. “The concern from the public side is that you’ve got a done deal,” Dunthorn says. “And you don’t want to go to the public after you’ve got a done deal, but you want to go to the public sometime in the process when you’ve done enough due diligence to know that it’s even a viable proposal.”
This Goldilocks process seems to have yielded a middle ground. The Office of the TYP has drafted a proposal that would give the developer 60 days after taking an option on a site to perform due diligence before notifying the public, and that draft will be taken to City Council to determine whether this process needs to be formalized.
A third but by no means final complaint about the Office of the TYP is a lack of consistency. On July 29, Ten-Year Plan staff, city council members, county commissioners, and citizens gathered at the South Knox Community Center for a meeting that was supposed to be dedicated to discussing safety and security issues around Flenniken. A former elementary school in South Knoxville, Flenniken is slated to become a 48-unit project sometime next year, provided the zoning gets approved (the Metropolitan Planning Commission will rule on this Thursday). Yet the conversation that evening quickly moved away from safety and security to broader concerns about the lack of consistency in communicating the details about Flenniken.
Two issues arose. One was the fact the facility would be co-ed. Many said they had been told it would be male-only, but the Office of the TYP responded that it had always been described as a co-ed facility. The other was the loosening of the qualifications for who could apply to live at Flenniken or Minvilla. Finley and Weatherstone said someone who doesn’t meet the strict definition of chronically homeless—that is, someone with a disability who has been homeless for at least one year, or four times within a three-year period—could still be considered for permanent supportive housing through the Ten-Year Plan.
Councilman Nick Pavlis told Robert Finley, spokesman for the Office of the TYP, that the Office had “shot themselves in the foot.” “Whether it’s for good or for bad, the community just wants to know exactly what it is they’re going to get,” Pavlis said.
This point—that people may ultimately understand and even agree with changes but are nevertheless upset by a lack of consistency—was made repeatedly. Mike Brown, a county commissioner for South Knoxville, put it this way, “We’ve been given baloney so many times, you can give us steak and it still tastes like baloney. That’s where we’re at.”
But it’s tough to know how genuine remarks like this are. Are people really so upset with a lack of consistency over details? Or are they attempting to find whatever excuse they can to oppose these developments, out of distrust or fear of the chronically homeless?
“You’ve got the people who really demagogue it, like Mr. Peabody, and you can draw your own conclusions about why he might be doing that,” Finley says, “but I think there are people in the room whenever someone like that’s talking who kind of go, ‘Well yeah, that is wrong,’ who haven’t really thought about it and don’t maybe have the same agenda as he does.”
At any rate, the Office of the TYP has hired the Ackermann public relations firm at a cost of $100,000, paid for through private donations, to coach its communications. But in some ways, the lack of consistency is baked into the plan itself. When Minvilla opens in the fall, lessons from it will be applied to Flenniken, and from Flenniken to other projects, and so on. “The plan was created as a living document,” Dunthorn says. “It wasn’t something that in 2004 we wrote it and said, Boom! We’re done for 10 years, this is the bible on homelessness in Knoxville. It was, Hey, let’s figure out a better way to organize what we’re doing, come up with strategies that end homelessness rather than manage it, and figure out how we’re doing it along the way.”
How to provide greater consistency in a process that must necessarily evolve will prove an ongoing challenge, but Lawler thinks having a clear procedure for notification should help.
The Pea Party
With the petition off the table, the immediate existential threat to the plan has dissipated, and the power of Peabody, or the “Pea Party,” as some critics have taken to calling him, looks to be greatly diminished. Interestingly, had his petition gone forward and forced the city to vote on whether to kill the plan, it would have given some indication of how broad and intense the opposition truly is. Because of the nature of TYP Choice, that’s a hard thing to gauge: Peabody is not only the spokesman for TYP Choice, to date he’s the only person publicly confirmed as belonging to it. He says he won’t divulge who else is a member or how many signatures he obtained for the petition, a strategy he admits may prove to be a mistake. But, he says, he doesn’t want the story to become about personalities rather than issues. Stephanie Matheny, a lawyer who worked on homeless housing in Seattle before moving to Knoxville, helped found Citizens for the Ten-Year Plan, a pro-TYP group (she happens to be Peabody’s neighbor). In contrast to TYP Choice, her group proudly displays the names and zip codes of its members on the homepage of its website.
Peabody’s concerns with the plan are mostly related to the cost and implementation of permanent supportive housing. He questions the best practices the plan was based on, the framework used to procure development, and the limited partnerships created to own the facilities; he questions the cost of specific projects, the cost-benefit studies on Housing First, and the cost-benefit study conducted locally; he questions the lack of a sobriety requirement for clients before entering housing, and he questions the competence of those in the Office of the Ten-Year Plan.
He says what his group is after is greater transparency, consistency, and community involvement from the Office of the Ten-Year Plan. Interestingly, those are things just about everyone involved says they want. But those working in the Office of the TYP, and at some of the agencies like VMC, do question Peabody’s sincerity. And Lawler points out, for all the criticism and questions, Peabody’s group isn’t offering any alternative to the plan. “The administration believes and we believe the status quo is not acceptable. It is not financially the right thing to do, and just from a humanitarian standpoint, not the right thing to do.”
To be sure, individual sites will continue to draw vocal opposition, and the process and plan will continue to evolve. How broad that opposition is, and how it affects the politics of next year’s mayoral and City Council elections, are open questions.
Back at his kitchen table, in a darkened apartment in Montgomery Village, Robbins doesn’t know if he’ll move to Minvilla when it opens in the fall. He tells Higdon it’s not for him to decide.
“If God really wants me to be somewhere else, if it would be better for my health and better for my mental situation and for me, then okay,” he says.
Higdon thinks it would be. “The thing that worries me is the seizures. It’d nice to have some people around,” he tells Robbins.
“Right, right, right,” Robbins agrees, returning to a calm that doesn’t last long. “But you see, the thing about it is, I see where John Robbins, back in his life in the past, was so much happier. But it’s not there now.”
“Right, and all that’s left is the best that we can do,” Higdon responds.
“And that’s it,” Robbins says. “It’s like you said, that’s it.”