Compassion Knoxville Prepares its Final Report

"Come together, with the fact that we could become like that. Help them in some way because they lose it let them know they are important too"

"Something done to address those who come to Knox. from other cities and communities. Something to address the attraction of homeless to Knox., free food and shelters within steps of the bus station."

"No tax payer money used, donations only"

"Knoxville has a tendency to be politically conservative, which can translate to judgment and narrow-mindedness"

"Create a homeless district where they can be close to services. Cut funding unless they are vets and costs should be legacy costs."

"Disperal [sic] of services/housing throughout the community as opposed to over concentration"

Those are a few of the hundreds of comments and suggestions collected over the past few months by Compassion Knoxville, the citizens task force looking for new approaches to homelessness in Knoxville. And if they suggest something less than a community-wide consensus on the issue, that will likely be reflected when the group releases its final report in a few weeks.

"This report is about public input, and the gathering of public input," said Amy Gibson, the group's coordinator and sole staff member, at a meeting Monday as the task force prepared to wind down its work. It will distill the sometimes contradictory impulses expressed by about 600 people at dozens of public meetings into a set of recommendations to be presented to Knoxville City Council and Knox County Commission.

What happens then, of course, is up to elected officials, local nonprofit groups, churches, and others who intersect in various ways with the local homeless populations.

Compassion Knoxville arose almost from thin air this past winter, after the city and county effectively pulled the plug on the Ten-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness. That effort, largely funded by the city, had several achievements in its five-year run: the establishment of a Homeless Management Information System to gather and share data among the various local homeless agencies; an improvement in the relations and coordination between those agencies, which had in the past sometimes been at odds with each other; and the creation of an initial Permanent Supportive Housing complex at Minvilla Manor on Fifth Avenue. A second apartment block is under construction at the old Flenniken School in South Knoxville, but neighborhood opposition to that and other proposed housing sites eventually derailed the Ten-Year Plan. It foundered in February, once the city and county mayors who had initially supported were both gone and the political will to keep it going seemed to have evaporated.

Whether Compassion Knoxville can produce any new political momentum remains to be seen. The task force plans to release its report the second week of August, with a public meeting to follow the next week. (That meeting is tentatively set for Aug. 17 in the Main Assembly Room of the City County Building, but details are still being worked out.) That will be about three weeks before early voting starts in the city primaries for mayor and Council, which means the group's recommendations could emerge as issues in the final weeks of the campaigns.

But first, Gibson has to compile all the work that has come out of the brief life of the task force. Compassion Knoxville started as a deliberate odd-couple pairing of the Ten-Year Plan's most vocal critic, Ron Peabody, and one of its staunchest supporters, Stephanie Matheny. Peabody had become active against the Ten-Year Plan's housing efforts during its search for a site in his West Knoxville, and formed a group called TYP Choice. Matheny headed up a group formed in response called Citizens for the Ten-Year Plan. In Compassion Knoxville, the two of them pulled together a task force of advocates for the homeless, neighborhood groups, and business representatives.

After an initial series of public meetings in April and May, Peabody resigned from the task force in June when he announced his candidacy for City Council. (He is running for At Large Seat C.) But the rest of the group carried on, forming Topic Groups to study eight areas identified in those early meetings: housing, services, safety, families/youth, funding, community involvement, mental health, and job training. Each group has produced four to six recommendations, which means there will be 30 to 40 in the final report. Those could be things for either local governments, nonprofit groups, churches, or others to address.

"One of the things we're trying to focus on is the what needs to be done, more than the who," Gibson says.

Matheny adds, "Some of that is just going to have to work itself out in the process."

In any case, all of the comments collected to date are in spreadsheets online at compassionknoxville.com. (Click on "Meeting Ideas.) The full report will be posted there, too, once it's finished.

And after that? Matheny told about 10 task force members Monday that their personal work will probably have to continue once Compassion Knoxville is done. "I hope that each of us on the task force would consider ourselves ambassadors for these recommendations," she said. "There is going to need to be advocacy—primarily for not ignoring the problem."