Last Wednesday on Market Square, the Knoxville-Knox County Homeless Coalition and the University of Tennessee jointly released two studies with powerful—and dismaying—statistics about the local homeless population.
But such numbers are only valuable if local leaders are willing to follow up on them, says Rev. Bruce Spangler, chief operating officer of Volunteer Ministries and president of the coalition. "We can provide all the data, and have for the past 26 years, but we need public, civic response to the issues," he says. "One of the things I lean upon—I hope our leaders don't lose their nerve in acting."
While Spangler is not saying either mayor is "an advocate in any way," he says he'll keep reminding both Madeline Rogero and Tim Burchett that they showed up for the study's release. "I think the city mayor intends to wrestle with this, and Commissioner Mike Hammond has expressed constant interest in the studies and I think he'll wrestle with it, too."
This is the first time the two studies have been released together. The first, an in-depth biennial study of 236 people experiencing homelessness, has been conducted by Roger Nooe, social services director of the Knox County Public Defender's Community Law Office and UT professor emeritus, since 1986.
The second is a study for UT's KnoxHMIS by social work professor David Patterson and data analyst Stacia West, an annual examination of population demographics and services provided to 7,320 individuals and families experiencing homelessness in the year previous. Each month in 2011, an average of 1,595 people access services for homelessness. For the year, the total number of individuals utilizing services was 7,320—a 3 percent increase over 2010.
A few more specific study statistics may shock—and perhaps prod—the general public and civic leaders. One is the increase of families experiencing homelessness. The coalition's data showed a 2 percent increase of those receiving services in these demographics: children, African Americans, and individuals in a single-parent household. Single female parents comprise 9 percent of the total population experiencing homelessness.
"The public image of homelessness is those you see on the streets, but the reality is that it affects families with children in growing numbers," says Spangler.
Another stat Spangler says "leaps out" at him: the overwhelming numbers of homeless with mental health issues. The study said 10 percent of people accessing homeless services report having a mental illness, but Spangler said among VMC's population it's at least half and may be as much as 80 percent.
"Homelessness is really just a symptom of the economy, and mental health issues—that's the reason I'm trying to push City Council and the County Commission to regard it as a public health issue, and address it that way," he says.
Another set of statistics handily refutes the notion that Knoxville is some sort of homeless magnet because we readily feed and shelter the homeless. The coalition's study notes:
• 83 percent of the people who access services in Knoxville last had a permanent address in Knox or one of eight surrounding counties
• 57 percent of homeless individuals are originally from Tennessee.
This is a particularly important hard data set to absorb, says Eddie Young, executive director of Redeeming Hope Ministries in Fort Sanders. Long-held beliefs to the contrary have already inspired discussions about limiting the number of meals served to the homeless in Knoxville and other services. "Locals want to believe that Knoxville is the homeless Shangri La," Young says, "that the homeless are coming here from all over America—the world, the galaxy; that they jump off the bus and are immediately escorted to banquet halls."
The stats indicate that Knoxville's just in the same boat as any major metropolitan area surrounded by smaller counties. "The problem is not that we are ‘feeding the homeless so well,'" says Young, whose group advocates for the homeless. "It's simply that we are attracting needy people from East Tennessee because we are the largest city nearby and can provide the most resources."
But even those who see the data might not develop a sense of urgency, says Young. "To bring about the systemic changes needed to slow down this runaway train requires an investment of time and energy and effort and funding. It's hard to get the community's attention: The ongoing position is ‘These guys made their own beds and can lie in them.' With data from this study, we know that's not true."
The shortest bridge between the cold, hard statistics and the urge to do something about it is within the study pages, too, says Spangler. They've included numerous "case studies" that showcase the diversity of local homeless, from Scott, who hears "messages from God" that make him act out and refuse medication, to Amy and her son, who couldn't keep up with their KUB bills and landed on the streets. "I really think the motivation will come when we can put a personal face on it, when we can recognize that any of us could have loved ones in a similar plight."
But as Spangler says in the studies' forward note: "If, however and on the other hand, the ‘facts and figures' herein are just another proliferation of information, then the addictive stupor of data collection has once again mesmerized us into nonaction."