When local officials called a news conference on Feb. 9 to announce major changes in the Ten-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness, there was an improvised air about the proceedings that left a lot of the media representatives present scratching their heads. Jon Lawler, the TYP’s executive director, was resigning, along with his assistant Robert Finley, but it was not quite clear what would happen next. A week later, it still isn’t. But apparently it will be up to an unelected group with no actual authority.
After brief comments at the news conference, County Mayor Tim Burchett and Knoxville Mayor Daniel Brown introduced Ron Peabody and Stephanie Matheny, who they said would be co-chairing a citizens’ task force on homelessness and housing. Peabody, a former West Knoxville neighborhood association president, is a familiar name and face from months of public meetings and press releases in which he has challenged the Ten-Year Plan’s attempts to place small homeless housing complexes in neighborhoods across the city. Matheny, an attorney for the Tennessee Clean Water Network, has been somewhat less of a public presence, but she heads up a group called Citizens for the Ten-Year Plan, which formed in opposition to Peabody’s TYPChoice.
But the size, scope, and actual role of the yet-to-be-named task force were not spelled out. “This has all just developed in the last five or six days,” Peabody said at the time. In a joint interview with the News Sentinel on Friday, he and Matheny said they were looking to start with 12 to 15 people representing various interests (advocates for the homeless, churches, neighborhood groups), and then hold public meetings to build community consensus about how—or whether—to proceed with the Ten-Year Plan.
Despite Brown’s insistence that the TYP “is not ended,” just “being tweaked,” it seems likely that whatever emerges will at the very least be called something different. “I’m not big on names like that,” Burchett said last week. “I think you get stuck with that.” He added, “I don’t think anyone thinks we’re going to end homelessness in 10 years.”
In the meantime, there is still an office bearing that name, with one remaining employee, Michael Dunthorn, overseeing all the other parts of the plan that don’t involve controversial housing sites. According to Bill Lyons, the city’s senior director of policy and communication, Dunthorn will report directly to the two mayors, since the TYP itself no longer has a director.
The already murky lines of authority seemed to get even murkier last Thursday, when Finley sent out an e-mail to City Council and County Commission members that began, “Some important background information might have been a little unclear at yesterday’s joint City and County Mayors’ press conference ...” Finley went on to explain that the week before, professional planner and facilitator Gianni Longo had come to town and spoken with community groups and others involved in the Ten-Year Plan. Longo’s name is a familiar one in Knoxville because of his past work on the Nine Counties, One Vision plan and in helping with revitalization plans for Market Square. Finley suggested he would be playing an ongoing role in the new TYP citizens’ task force: “He’s supposed to come back in a week or so to advance the development of this community process.”
Well, maybe. Asked why Longo’s name hadn’t come up at the news conference, Lyons says, “He won’t be doing anything unless that group wants him to.” He says that the city had nothing to do with Longo’s arrival on the scene, and the city also has no control over the task force: “They’re independent of us, it has to be that way. They are on their own, it’s whatever they want to do.”
And, he adds, the task force itself has no policy-making authority. It is a private group that will make recommendations that the city and county can then consider.
Meanwhile, the guy who did bring Longo to town is Laurens Tullock, president of the local Cornerstone Foundation and an advisory board member of the Ten-Year Plan. He had worked with Longo on his past Knoxville projects and thought he might be able to help move the homeless housing effort past its political morass. But he says Longo’s visit Feb. 2-4 was just to talk to supporters and opponents of the plan and help them think about the issues involved. If the task force wants to use Longo’s services further, Tullock says, “I’ll be happy to help them any way I can help them, but it’s got to be their decision.”
Among other things, Tullock says he does not want Cornerstone to be the primary funder of any of the task force’s efforts. The foundation’s primary sponsor is developer Rodney Lawler, father of Jon Lawler, and Tullock knows that would look bad to people skeptical of the TYP. “For the process to be credible, it needs to have the right people at the table and the right funders at the table,” he says.
All of which seems to leave the next move in the hands of Peabody and Matheny. So who’s running the Ten-Year Plan? For the moment, the correct answer is, “Nobody.”