Moving Up

Volunteer Ministry Center begins construction of its long-planned new facility on North Broadway

Local attorney Judy McCarthy says she isn't unsympathetic to the plight of the city's homeless; she and her husband Dennis McCarthy, also a lawyer, have in the past provided free legal services to homeless people who have come to their offices on the 100 block of Gay Street.

Still, she can't help but look forward to the day when the 100 block's Volunteer Ministry Center, the city's biggest homeless outreach, makes its planned move to a new facility at 511 North Broadway. The new building should be completed by fall, and center officials hope to move in October.

"We've had ongoing problems [with the homeless population], problems that have made it difficult to stay," says McCarthy. "People who come visit our office from West Knoxville, they're not used to being panhandled, or having to step over human excrement to get in the door."

McCarthy's law firm isn't the only 100-block business to have experienced problems, either. She makes the point that those kinds of nuisance issues can be detrimental for an area looking to get in step with the ongoing revitalization of downtown. "We pay a pretty high cost per square foot here," she says. "There's a lot you have to put up with if you own property on this block."

Founded in 1987, Volunteer Ministry Center is an interfaith non-profit dedicated to assisting the homeless; it currently occupies roughly 19,000 square feet at Jackson Avenue and Gay. Its programs include the People's Clinic, a walk-in clinic for the indigent on Jackson; the Refuge, an assistance program that VMC CEO Ginny Weatherstone describes as "sort of a homeless prevention program"; and the Jackson Apartments, 16 rent-subsidized units that constitute "a first step out of homelessness" for VMC clients working toward self-sufficiency.

But the VMC component that is most problematic for other residents of the 100 block is the Day Resource Center—formerly referred to as the Day Shelter—where the homeless receive free meals, as well as counseling aimed at helping them break the cycle of poverty. According to Weatherstone, the name change is indicative of VMC's effort to hold clients accountable for working their way off the streets.

"We don't want to simply provide amenities that keep people comfortable in homelessness," says Weatherstone. "Whereas we used to allow people to receive services for an unlimited period of time, now we hold them responsible."

But even with VMC slowly transitioning out of the emergency day-shelter business, the resource center still sees traffic of up to 200 homeless come through its doors every day. And that can lead to problems for other 100 block tenants.

"Sometimes they'll just walk in the door, and the only way to keep them out is to lock it. Still, they'll stand outside and pound on the door, wanting to use the bathroom or the phone, even if you're talking to someone," says McCarthy. She notes that VMC is only open for meals and service during certain hours of the day, and that its clients look to other businesses in search of public rest rooms during those times it is closed.

"The most offensive problem to me is that some of them will use the bathroom in the doorway," she continues. "I've actually had people come up while I'm with a client and urinate on the window. How am I supposed to run a law firm when people have to see that?"

As proprietor of Nama Sushi Bar on the 100 block and a member of the ministry center's board, Gregg White appreciates the dilemmas faced by business owners and VMC volunteers alike. "I'm torn on the subject, because I want the folks who need help to get help.

"It's true that we have a high occurrence of certain issues on this block," White continues. "There has been open consumption of alcohol, people doing drugs. I've seen people trying to take refuge in the alcoves of some of the buildings I own.

"But I don't think it's the people who are trying to get off the streets, making legitimate use of the services that are causing the problems. It's the people screaming, using drugs, vulgar language. Those people usually aren't eligible for services because they aren't behaving themselves."

Relief for the 100 block should come soon; though VMC has looked toward a possible move for several years, it appears hopeful that the relocation will take place by the end of 2008. Construction has begun on the 30,000 square-foot North Broadway facility; Weatherstone says the new building will include classrooms, a computer lab, and more offices for more case managers.

The new facility should also spell the end of VMC serving as an emergency day shelter. Weatherstone says plans call for those functions—food and shelter for the walk-in homeless, so to speak—to be assumed by another agency. (Weatherstone wasn't at liberty to name the agency.)

"There have been a few holdups, in the past, with getting the new building going," White admits. "Getting that going is a whole new process for the folks at the ministry center; it's not what they do for a living. But they have been diligent. They are as anxious to move as other people are anxious for them to move."