Moving day is coming closer for at least 65 more chronically homeless people in Knoxville as the Knoxville/Knox County 10-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness closes out its second year with substantial progress on providing additional permanent supportive housing units.
Fifty-seven one-bedroom apartments and efficiencies could emerge from the shambles of the former 5th Avenue Hotel in less than a year, says Jon Lawler, director of the 10-Year Plan, which is sponsored by both the city and county mayors and charged with the coordination of local, state, and federal resources to address chronic homelessness. Renovation of the currently empty, ramshackle building is waiting on the U.S. Park Service to approve an application for historic-status designation that allows tax credits. Once approved, construction should take about 10 months, says Lawler.
"The traditional plan for the homeless is to reward sobriety or staying on mental-health meds with a possible move to more permanent housing," explains Lawler. "We'll provide housing first. Once people have a stable home, they'll start right away with a case worker to help them stay on their meds and deal with addiction."
An eight-unit apartment planned for a property in the Dandridge neighborhood that will be managed by the Helen Ross McNabb Center is also gaining momentum. It's garnered the support of the Dandridge Neighborhood Association, with a proposal already at a first reading at City Council.
Eventually, says Lawler, the plan calls for developing 500 housing units between what exists now (including 77 fully operating units maintained by Volunteer Ministries) and what the task force can bring online. The places will be owned and rented in the $475-$525 per month range by a non-profit. "Other properties we're looking at go as far south as the Parkway Hotel on Chapman Highway, as far west as the West High School/Sutherland area and as far north as Merchant's Drive and I-640," says Lawler.
Suitable locations must consist of single-person dwellings and be close to public transportation, the Helen Ross McNabb Center, and Cherokee Health Services, says Lawler. "And we want enough space so case workers can live on site."
Logistics aside, part of the apartment hunt entails dealing with neighbors' reactions, according to Lawler. "Everyone agrees with what we're doing in concept," he says. "How can you argue against compassion for people who are living on the street, fighting addiction and severe mental illness? But then when you think about those same people living ‘in my back yard,' it generates a lot of emotion."
In the case of the Parkway Hotel on Chapman Highway, some neighboring businesses don't cotton to the idea of Bob Monday's building becoming permanent housing for the chronically homeless.
Monday had operated the former hotel as a low-low-rent apartment building for some 30 years and had already proposed it as a potential permanent supportive housing unit when city building inspectors cited the property with numerous deficiencies and violations several months ago. Monday opted to close the doors rather than bring the building up to code. As for whether it will make the grade as a place to remodel as permanent supportive housing, "we're studying the feasibility now," says Lawler.
Ron Emery, owner of the Emery 5 & 10 right across Chapman, hopes the answer is "no."
"I applaud the city for trying to address the needs of the homeless, but when selecting lodging, I don't feel it's in the best interest of the community to put it in the middle of the business district," Emery says. "I just don't think it's a good fit."
South Knoxville City Council representative Joe Hultquist hopes business neighbors can have their say before any ink is dry. He's looking to establish a process similar to the one employed when the 10 Year Plan was eyeing a property in Colonial Village, a prospect that ultimately did not work out.
"Jon Lawler first approached me and together we attended a neighborhood association meeting," he said. "The Colonial Village Neighborhood Association formed a study committee that eventually recommended two other nearby sites they thought would work better. They really did their homework; they weren't just reacting to what they thought might happen."
Lawler's task force also made a presentation to the Dandrige Neighborhood Association before moving forward with the proposed apartment building in their area. Although ordinarily opposed to group homes in a residential area already "saturated" with them, the residents had no problem with this specific request, says association president Raleigh Wynn. "This unit would be on an isolated street that's not overly populated and that comes straight out onto Riverside Drive," he says, "And the human side of me wants to help those people who help themselves."
However individual situations are resolved, Lawler is convinced that the 10-Year Plan will benefit the entire community, and not just with warm fuzzies. "Statistics show a high individual success rate," he says. Studies indicate permanent supportive housing retention rates of 75-85 percent for some of the most severely disabled tenants, with many remaining in stable housing for periods of up to five years with improvements in mental health and substance abuse recovery.
"And Permanent Supportive Housing reduces the amount of money a community spends to serve chronically homeless people, plain and simple," says Lawler.
Those who are chronically homeless—defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as those who've been on the street for a year or had four homeless episodes in the past three years—cost the Knoxville community, state and federal government some $37,000 per year per person, according to a 2006 study of 25 homeless individuals in Knoxville conducted by Dr. Roger Nooe, Professor Emeritus at the University of Tennessee College of Social Work. Most of the tally comes from emergency room visits, detox, and the like.
"The 10-Year Plan will incur cost for housing, but that cost is offset by U.S. Government funding via HUD's various programs for low-income housing," says Lawler. "The cost that would stay in our community is the provision of support services, but we're estimating that support services will halve the amount our community currently spends on supporting a chronically homeless person."
The task force bases those projections on the findings from a Maine Department of Health and Human Services 2007 study of a similar program in Portland. "People in permanent supportive housing dramatically reduce their need for, and consumption of, psychiatric inpatient services, and other emergency services, such as emergency rooms, jails, and emergency shelters," says Lawler.
Task force member Father Ragan Shriver of Catholic Charities hopes the donation of volunteer hours will further offset the program's expenses. "Traditionally our opportunity for service has been to get a group together and go serve a meal," he says, "and that's been status quo for years and years and there are people in the faith-based community who would be most comfortable to just keep doing that."
But the 10-Year Plan offers a chance to make lasting change, says Shriver. "We're trying to set up a mentoring program so a church or synagogue or civic group can get involved with a chronically homeless person, develop a long-term relationship of support, really introduce someone back into society.
"We're not just trying to get the chronically homeless housed to clean things up and make downtown look better," adds Shriver, who also served as president of the Knoxville Homeless Coalition for three years.
When he envisions these apartment units, Shriver sees a possible happy ending for a friend he has who lives on the streets. "He's 57 and he's been homeless a big chunk of his adult life. He was in foster care for years because his parents abused and neglected him and as an adult he's experienced deep depression and self-medicated with drugs and alcohol.
"Right now, he lives in a shelter and on the streets. He didn't want help in the past, but now he's ready to start a new life. I hope we can get ready for him."