Homelessness Plan Update: City Council Members Take Positive Tone in Feedback

The Knoxville City Council struck a positive tone last Thursday while workshopping the city's proposed plan to address homelessness.

After introductory remarks from Mayor Madeline Rogero and Michael Dunthorn, from the city's office on homelessness, Council members offered words of support for the plan.

"This is not a city plan," said Councilman Finbarr Saunders, who sits on the Mayor's Roundtable on Homelessness. "It was formed from all the providers, all the people on the Mayor's Roundtable. Much of it is already in place and working. I think this is worthy of our consideration and adoption when the time comes."

Councilman George Wallace said he was glad the city would have a plan to guide it when deciding what projects to fund, but said the city should be prepared for challenges associated with supporting homelessness programs.

"The hardest part is having a plan in black and white. Job well done," he said. "A lot of it is going to be the ability to bring the public and match it up with the private dollars, and how to leverage that. That's going to be the challenge right there: How to bring private dollars to the table to look at the housing piece, for instance … and what we can do."

Councilman Nick Della Volpe was the first to start asking questions, and after commending Dunthorn and the Mayor's Roundtable on Homelessness for their work on the plan, asked just how much this plan would cost the city.

"This is not something [where] the city will fund the entire plan," Rogero explained. "The adoption of this plan does not require us to fund a specific amount for a specific program at this time. But it leads us as we analyze what are we able to do from city government, and where we would focus our resources if we were to put in additional dollars. This is how I would make that decision and put that recommendation to you all in the budget."

Council member Duane Grieve asked for a rundown on what the city currently spends on homelessness projects.

Rogero explained that since stimulus funding ended, there will be significantly less federal funding coming the city's way, and the federal Emergency Solution Grant that the city had received directly (typically about $130,000) will now go directly to the state of Tennessee, and the city will have to apply for funds.

"We, of course will [apply]. We're not sure if we'll get the whole $130,000. We anticipate less than that from the state. And there will probably be a six-month delay. So that's unfortunate news," she said.

Aside from that grant, the city spends about $125,000 for case management services at four Knoxville Community Development Corporation high rises that help prevent homelessness among certain populations living in those apartments; $50,000 is contributed to both Flenniken Landing and Minvilla Manor; and $100,000 goes to support the staff of the office on homelessness. All of that money comes from the city's general fund. The city also distributes $1.3 million in federal funds on behalf of the Continuum of Care program (which supports homelessness projects and agencies).

The Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness (which was killed in 2011, in part by former Mayor Dan Brown) wasn't mentioned by name, though it was referenced by Dunthorn and a couple Council members.

"All the stakeholders seem to be buying in," Council member Brenda Palmer noted. "This process this time is a real step forward."

And former Mayor Brown said it will be imperative to get the county's involvement in the plan.

"This is a major step in the right direction," he said. "[But] this is really going to take the county's help."

Earlier in the meeting, Rogero announced that Martha Buchanan, the director of the county health department, will be County Mayor Tim Burchett's representative on the Mayor's Roundtable.

After the meeting, Rogero said she was feeling positive about the Council's feedback, and hopeful that the plan would be adopted.

"What I'm hearing is good support from our partners, from Council, and from the community," she said. "I am hopeful, and based on Council's responses, I think they will be very supportive of it."

Michael Dunthorn, who's in charge of the city's office on homelessness, was equally optimistic and said he hadn't heard anything from Council "I hadn't anticipated."

"I appreciated the positive responses from Council members. Assuming they're of the same frame of mind … we'll all sort of have a good starting point."

Only one member of the public, Vivian Shipe, spoke at the workshop. "[W]e really need to get some structure and some direction and some collaboration with the faith-based organizations. [And] not just always the ones that are already doing [projects]. Let's go out and get some of the other organizations," Shipe said. Dunthorn added that the public comment period had brought up a few points "that really should've been in [the plan]."

Emphasizing access to transit and how to get homeless people with pets into permanent housing that might not allow pets were two points brought to Dunthorn's attention.

"There are some people who—the only thing they have in the world is their pet. And if you're going to go into some type of housing or program or shelter, they're going to tell you, you can't have your pet. And so they don't go. I don't know how you solve that, but that shouldn't be a barrier in ending homelessness."

But the point that clearly hit home with Dunthorn was the suggestion to work with active military groups to identify servicemen and women who are at risk for homelessness after they're discharged.

"That, actually, to me was a light bulb [turning on]. Let's get upstream and prevent people from sliding downhill after the military," Dunthorn said.

Rogero said the homelessness plan will be on City Council's April 1 agenda.