"This is a pretty complex issue," Jon Lawler says, leaning forward in his chair.
No kidding. Lawler was speaking Monday night at a sparsely attended meeting of the Town Hall East neighborhood association in a church hall on Asheville Highway. His subject, as it has been at any number of meetings over the past three years, was the Ten-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness.
What began as an earnest city-county effort to provide "permanent supportive housing" to the most persistent and troubled segment of Knoxville's homeless population has somehow devolved into a civic morass of finger-pointing, suspicion, and misunderstanding. The most obvious sign of trouble takes the form of two proposed referendums aimed at stopping the Ten-Year Plan dead in its tracks. But Lawler, who was hired in 2007 as director of the joint city-county program, acknowledges the referendums are symptoms of a larger problem: In looking for places to house the homeless, the proponents of the plan have not anticipated or alleviated the concerns of the surrounding neighborhoods.
"The housing component, philosophically, makes a lot of sense," Lawler says. "I've never spoken to a Rotary club, Civitan club, church group, that everybody wasn't just saying, ‘It makes total sense.' But then when you move from concept to reality, that there's a site that we've selected to do that, that's where the resistance occurs."
He adds, "The thing that the planning process here probably didn't do well was anticipate that controversy and involve neighborhood groups in this planning process up front. I don't think you could have totally negated a lot of the resistance we've received, but I think you would've developed a better understanding of the interests of both groups."
So Lawler, along with city policy director Bill Lyons, is now engaged in something of a belated communications exercise, stepping up outreach to neighborhood groups and even enlisting professional assistance from local P.R. powerhouse Ackermann. (Lawler is careful to note that Ackermann is being paid through private donations to the Ten-Year Plan, not out of city or county funds.)
Still, the program is moving ahead with its first two housing locations: Minvilla Manor, on the site of the old Fifth Avenue Motel at the corner of North Broadway and East Fifth, which is scheduled to open this fall with 57 housing units; and a planned 48-unit complex at the old Flenniken School, which City Council approved federal grant funding of $1.15 million for last month. Minvilla is in the heart of an area where homeless services are already concentrated (the so-called "Mission District"), but Flenniken is the first attempt at what the Ten-Year Plan refers to as "scattered-site" housing: moving chronically homeless people into neighborhoods around the county.
Every site Lawler's office has identified as a potential property—including Lakeshore Park and Teaberry Lane in West Knoxville—has prompted local opposition, and Flenniken is no exception. Some critics say that if Lawler and others in his office have gotten the message about poor community relations, there is as yet little evidence of it.
"They did a horrible job," says Chip Barry, a resident of Colonial Village in South Knoxville who is active in the South Knoxville Neighborhood and Business Coalition. He says that after an initial meeting early this year with the coalition, Ten-Year Plan officials promised to stay in close touch with the community, but failed to.
"Nobody got a clear picture of what was going to happen at Flenniken," Barry says. He acknowledges that even a well-communicated plan would be likely to draw suspicion and a certain amount of not-in-my-backyard sentiment. But, he says, "It seems like their mindset has been, ‘We're going to have opposition, so we're not going to tell anyone anything about it until the last minute.' And I think it would be better to face it head-on."
That's what the plan's proponents will be forced to do if the proposed referendums get on either the August or November ballot. They are being pushed by a group headed by Ron Peabody of the Kingston Woods Neighborhood Association in West Knoxville, who got involved in the issue when the Teaberry Lane site was under consideration.
The draft petitions submitted to the Knox County Election Commission for review call for the Flenniken project to be scrapped altogether, and for the Ten-Year Plan itself to be abandoned in favor of a new "comprehensive homelessness plan." If the petitions are okayed by the state and by the county Election Commission at its May 21 meeting, Peabody and his allies could begin collecting the 1,968 signatures each referendum would need to be put before voters. Peabody did not return a call for comment.
Lawler says the plan has already racked up major accomplishments, placing 313 chronically homeless people in existing affordable housing in the past two years, 87 percent of whom are still there. It has also established a Homeless Management Information System, a central database for local homeless providers.
As for the referendums, Lawler says that if they end up going to voters, he will treat them as an educational opportunity.
"It will take time and energy that we normally would expend somewhere else," he says, "but we'll just take it and try to make a positive out of it. It will light a fire under us to convince the community that the status quo is not acceptable. The folks that are proposing the referendum have no alternative plan."