Compassion Knoxville's Daunting Goals

The new homelessness task force has a lot to do, and just a few months to do it

How much compassion does Knoxville really have? And for whom?

Those questions hovered over the first meeting of the newly christened Compassion Knoxville task force on Monday, the latest effort to reach some kind of community consensus on the problems of local homelessness. The group was formed at the request of Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett and Knoxville Mayor Daniel Brown, after the beleaguered Ten-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness stalled in February. It is co-chaired by Ron Peabody, who as the spokesman of a group called TYP Choice became the leading public critic of the Ten-Year Plan last year, and Stephanie Matheny, who headed up the counter-organization, Citizens for the Ten-Year Plan.

When the task force was announced, there were a lot of jokes about whether Peabody and Matheny would even be able to agree on where and when to meet, but Monday night's session proceeded amiably enough. The two of them traded off agenda items as they tried to explain to the other task force members exactly what they will be doing over the next few months. (They also introduced Compassion Knoxville's new and only staff member, Amy Gibson, who is on loan from the Howard H. Baker Center at the University of Tennessee.)

The task force has grown to 21 members, including representatives from local homeless service agencies, churches, business associations, and neighborhood groups. With the assistance of consultant Gianni Longo, who participated in the meeting via phone, Peabody and Matheny laid out a process as complicated as it is supposed to be quick. Compassion Knoxville plans to:

— Hold a series of sessions (planned for next week) to train up to 50 "facilitators" to lead small public meetings on homelessness around the county;

— Schedule up to 50 of those small meetings, with neighborhood groups, churches, homeless advocates, and pretty much anyone who wants to host one (this is supposed to be done by May 15);

— Collect all the comments, concerns, and suggestions about homelessness from those meetings, arrange them by topic, and form Topic Groups of citizens and policy experts to study each one;

— Hold Topic Group meetings from late May to late June;

— Bring together all of the above into a report with recommendations that can be presented to the general public by July 11.

Even some of the task force members at Monday's meeting seemed bewildered by all of the meetings, groups, and committees. "I'm already confused in terms of who does what," said Dan Smith, who represents the Council of Involved Neighborhoods.

But Matheny and Peabody said the multiple layers of the effort will give maximum opportunity for public participation. They emphasized that Compassion Knoxville itself is mostly a vehicle to bring together community opinion and suggestions, and transmit those to local leaders. "This body is not going to be implementing potential solutions to homelessness," Matheny said. "That will be left to the service providers and the city and the county."

Compassion Knoxville's limited mission is reflected in its limited budget, about $27,000 raised from local hospitals, churches, and the United Way.

Peabody, who had often criticized the Ten-Year Plan for not sufficiently engaging neighborhood groups and the community at large, said that every comment made at any of the meetings will be collected and reflected in the final report. But as a few audience members noted during the public comment period at the end of Monday's meeting, that could present a conundrum if comments reflect biases and distortions about the nature of Knoxville's homeless population. "I have heard some absolutely horrific generalizations about the chronically homeless over the last six months," Russ Jensen told the group. "They're not all criminals, they don't all want to kill their neighbors."

In fact, Monday's meeting coincided with the release of the latest annual report by the Knoxville Homeless Management Information System, which was established under the Ten-Year Plan to compile data on the local population. According to the report, 7,089 people used homeless services in Knoxville last year, a 28 percent increase from the year before. Of those, 41 percent had a disability, 22 percent were in a single-female household, 20 percent were chronically homeless, and 11 percent were under the age of 10.

Flying in the face of oft-repeated claims that Knoxville is magnet for a far-flung homeless diaspora, the report says that 60 percent of the homeless population here is from Knox County, and 83 percent is from either Knox or the eight surrounding counties. Whether those kinds of statistics can make a dent in persistent misconceptions will be one challenge facing Compassion Knoxville.

For now, the group is seeking volunteers to facilitate and host small community meetings. Anyone interested can contact Amy Gibson at amykgibson@compassionknoxville.com or (865) 544-8354.

As Monday's meeting drew to a close, task force member Michael Strickland cautioned that even the most aggressive and well-publicized effort was unlikely to draw more than a small sample of community input. "We're not going to have a huge set of folks involved," said Strickland, CEO of Bandit Lites and chair of the Knoxville Chamber. "You've got to manage your expectations."

Peabody, repeating a line he used several times that evening, said, "We're just going to do the best we can."