Redrawing the Lines in the Mission District

Can urban renewal, businesses, the homeless, and the shelters that serve them co-exist in the planned Downtown North district?

After two upbeat public meetings in July, Knoxville's redevelopment department is preparing to present a first-phase plan for Downtown North in minute detail within the next 30 days, according to Bob Whetsel, the city's Director of Redevelopment. The grand initiative will start with narrowing North Central Street between Broadway and Woodland Avenue to a two-lane road with wider sidewalks and on-street parking, with road re-striping possibly beginning in September. "We're getting down to, ‘How wide is the paint strip on the road?'" he says.

Official funding includes facade improvements underwritten by Empowerment Zone grants and $150,000 in city money for creation of a streetscape design for Central. Pioneer businesses from the Time Warp Tea Room and Club XYZ to the new Glowing Body yoga studio and The White Orchid wedding shop have already jumped into the fray independent of grant and city investment, but are ready to parlay it and their own retail and service concepts into what they hope will be a shining example of urban renewal. When they're done, Downtown North should little resemble the eyesore and economic non-starter of past decades. It will, say the movers and shakers, assume a new identity as a revitalized extension of downtown's successes.

There's just one catch, though.

This North Central/North Broadway area has already formed a new identity—as the location for the "Big Three" providers of service to area homeless, and the place where droves of people live on the street, morning, noon, and maybe night—a de facto Mission District. And while there are plenty who would like to see the entire setup vanish in the night, there are no plans on the part of the non-profits to reduce services, and no plans on the part of local government to change regulations that say whether groups of people without a place to call home can sit, sprawl, and sleep along Broadway or Central.

Absent a mandate, hundreds of street people and the Salvation Army, Knoxville Area Rescue Ministries (KARM), and Volunteer Ministry Center (VMC) will have to co-exist with this new plan for commercial prosperity and pedestrian walkways. And while the attitude of prospective Downtown North business owners and residents ranges from guarded tolerance to vocal demands for stricter ordinances and no new homeless services, the reality is that redevelopers will have to plan within the context of the homeless who are already in the area.

Who will set the tone for the relationship—and oversee the shifts in duties and strategies that are afoot at local agencies? Will life on the streets banish business gains? And, most importantly, for their sake and ours, will we ever get a grip on preventing homelessness? As anyone from a City County Building bigwig to a couple who until recently lived in the lines outside KARM can tell you, that's not a one-part answer.

DOING BUSINESS ON BROADWAY AND NORTH CENTRAL

"It's not exactly a selling point, to have folks laying out on Broadway on the sidewalk in a sleeping bag," says Amy Hubbard, general manager of the Glowing Body, a yoga and natural health studio that opens Sept. 5 on Irwin Street, a block from North Central. "We've had to address the issue with folks who are going to be teaching classes in our space.

"I want to be as kind as possible," she says. "In the perfect world, everybody would have a place to go. But we can't let them sit out on our doorstep, either. That's definitely a deterrent for people who just want to do some yoga. We're not a shelter, we're a business."

But in the Downtown North area, service to the homeless has become an even bigger business—just without the profit motive. According to records of the faith-based KARM, "On any given night in Knoxville and Knox County, approximately 900 people sleep in emergency shelters, on the street, in cars, in transitional housing, or doubled up with friends," and KARM serves about 400 each night "in Jesus' name" from its facility on Broadway, along with three meals a day, seven days a week.

Just the sheer numbers can be pretty intimidating—even to one of the crowd, says Shaun Buckarma, a 40-year-old former machinist who lived on those streets for seven to eight months, often eating or sleeping at KARM and using the day room at VMC. "And the stuff that goes on, the hardships, the crime," says Buckarma, who moved to permanent supportive housing through VMC in May. "People getting robbed, people getting their heads bashed in..."

"It's the drugs, the homeless hurting the homeless," adds his wife Sue, who's also 40.

"The chow line at the beginning of the month, it's almost like a ward at the hospital, people are beat up and bandaged, broken bones, because they got their disability checks and fought all night," says Shaun.

The situation's worse when the money's all gone at the end of the month, he notes. "People are doing desperate things."

"Stealing from the homeless... we don't got a lot, but they'll steal the boots right off your feet and go sell 'em," adds Sue.

Just down the street from the food lines at KARM, the Salvation Army mega-complex holds the Corps' worship center and five residential programs that serve a couple thousand or more per year. A street away, on the corner of Gay Street and Jackson Avenue, is the VMC, with a daytime resource center for people who want to work their way out of homelessness, serving anywhere from 100-190 each day of the week; a program designed to help the marginally housed avoid homelessness, whose caseworkers average 20 clients per day Monday to Friday; a free-standing People's Clinic; and 16 apartments that offer permanent supportive housing for single men.

The heavy traffic of street people has been bothering local residents and business owners since long before the Downtown North Redevelopment gained momentum, says Jonathan Wimmer, a resident of the Fourth and Gill neighborhood since 2001 and vice president of the Fourth & Gill Neighborhood Organization.

"We've always had an issue with the fact that we seem to bear the brunt or an unfair portion of homeless services for the city and county," he says. "You've got KARM, the VMC building, a number of faith-based services. We want these people to get the help they need, but we feel that these services continue to pile up on our front door rather than spreading throughout the city or county proportionally. There's a lot of people who are working hard to make improvements in our area and the further massing of these services is working contrary to that effort."

To redress the problem, says Wimmer, "I want a promise by the city to put a halt to any addition to services for the homeless in the Broadway/Fifth Avenue corridor."

The 2006 Broadway/Fifth Avenue Task Force of 2006 originated the Downtown North idea and its final report also addressed the idea of halting an expansion of services to the homeless in the area. "The Fifth Avenue and Broadway community also had the idea that what is already there needs to be accepted as part of the community and made to work as any other business in the community would," notes Whetsel.

None of those ideas ever made it into the recommendations from the Interstate 275/Central Corridor study of 2007, a 78-page document from the Knoxville-Knox County Metropolitan Planning Commission that encapsulates the Downtown North plan.

But Whetsel says they won't be ignored. "While we're working on the first part of the proposal, we're also working with the mayors' 10-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness and director Jon Lawler, trying to understand and manage the aspects of our development that touch on the homeless—or are affected by them."

While the 10-Year Plan folks—an amalgamation of civic leaders and representatives from public health and non-profit groups that serve the homeless—may help the Downtown North project set goals with the homeless as part of some later phase, their ongoing efforts, begun in 2005, do not necessarily encompass the goals of business owners or North Central/North Broadway residents, most of whom would prefer that the homeless be seldom seen and little heard. Nor is the 10-Year Plan's mission to keep street people from behaving in socially unacceptable fashion in mixed-use retail and residential pedestrian promenades. Rather, their top two points of emphasis are, "Provide housing first," and "Stop discharging to the streets from foster care, jails, and mental health hospitals."

The chronically homeless that the group focuses on are just one of three sub-groups of homeless—the other two are situationally and episodically homeless. The chronics are top priority for public dollars because of their extreme financial drain on the public budget. A number of national studies have documented that a homeless individual, suffering from mental illness and substance abuse, will consume an average of approximately $44,000 annually in public services—jail, emergency room, and other community expenditures. Locally, a study conducted by University of Tennessee emeritus sociologist Roger Nooe found that 25 homeless individuals in Knoxville tallied almost $1 million in public dollars for repeat cycles through jail, detox, hospitalization, and homelessness in 2006 alone. But even should a 10-year effort give all those chronically homeless people a path to permanent housing, that would only account for 26 percent of the 2006 total, according to Nooe's study.

"I think it's safe to assume, although there's no way to know, that some of those people now hanging out on the sidewalk are chronically homeless," says Robert Finley, a spokesperson for the 10-Year Plan. "They may be some of the people who decide they want to change their lives and move into permanent supportive housing. But some of the people on the sidewalk are going to find better ways to spend their time. It's a complicated problem. There's not a one-shot solution."

And it's slow going. The 10-Year Plan experienced a rough year in 2008. At least two potential housing units fell through: the old Parkway Hotel on Chapman Highway conclusively, when owner Bob Monday decided he couldn't sell; and the old Flenniken School in South Knoxville, at least for now, since it did not receive initial federal funding as a historic building. The 10-Year Plan has a goal of 500 permanent supportive dwellings total.

Even VMC's upcoming Minvilla, formerly the ramshackle Fifth Avenue Motel, is on the slower-than-desired track. In February, 10-Year Plan director Jon Lawler was fairly confident the 77-unit establishment could open in early 2009; now, the hoped-for date is November 2009. Another setback: An increase in construction costs nationwide drove the cost of the proposed project up $600,000, to $3.6 million.

Should the 10-Year Plan succeed, there would be a diminished number of street people on Broadway through a trickle-down effect, says Lt. David Rausch, a member of the board of the 10-Year Plan and former commander of the downtown patrol division for the Knoxville Police Department. "Once the worst are out of the system, you can start dealing with people who really do need just emergency services to get off the street," he says. "You can re-up the quality of services for the people they're designed to succeed with."

SHIFTING STRATEGIES

While no one is specifically strategizing to rein in the numbers of homeless trekking the streets in the potential Downtown North area, Burt Rosen, president and CEO of Knoxville Area Rescue Ministries and a task force member with the 10-Year Plan, did create a plan to respond to the qualms of his Broadway and Fifth Avenue neighbors in early August.

"Having listened to your concerns and feedback with regard to the number of people on Broadway in front of KARM and the Salvation Army, we have been looking for a way to address the issue," he wrote in a letter to the neighbors. In mid- to late-September, KARM will create an outdoor sitting area off its south-side parking lot, including limited indoor space with restrooms.

Rosen's careful to point out that no shelter organization has—or wants—the power to compel people to use a particular offering. "Yes, our outdoor area will provide an option other than the street," he says. "Although no one can be required to take advantage of our offer, we will strive to make the space sufficiently appealing so that those who truly want and need the help will take advantage of it. Thus we fully expect to see an improvement (in the numbers on the sidewalks)."

Wimmer says he looks forward to the innovation, in the hope that it will alleviate some of the people waiting to get into KARM who lay down along Broadway or try to cross in rush-hour traffic. "There have been a number of incidents where people crossing have been hurt," he says. "There's often an ambulance out in front of KARM. A perception like that doesn't exactly invite investment in the area, or entice business owners or customers to come and patronize established businesses."

Other moves afoot among the North Central and North Broadway homeless service providers will only tangentially reduce the number of people on the street in the potential Downtown North Redevelopment area. VMC, for example, is more than doubling its space when it shifts from Jackson to 511 North Broadway on property acquired through a grant from Knox County in October, with the bulk of further funding coming from a massive capital campaign.

"It's bigger, certainly, but it's also an opportunity to consolidate services, which makes it more likely homeless people will use them all—and it will eliminate the foot traffic we have currently when people walk to us downtown for day services," says VMC's director Ginny Weatherstone.

At the same time, KARM, which provides 100 percent of night services for the homeless in this area, will also open a new day shelter in September. Reflecting greater cooperation among the major shelters and more coordinated case management that also extends to local health and human service providers, KARM will be picking up some of the situationally and episodically homeless who will no longer be engaged with the VMC, says Rosen. "They'll continue making the shift they've already begun, away from day services and towards working with the individuals who want to participate in their program to provide permanent supportive housing. We may not be serving more people overall."

VMC, in fact, may be refusing service to more and more people—all in the common good, says Weatherstone.

"We let people know, ‘VMC is a place to change.' They may choose not to accept our services. That's fine, but I then choose not to continue to offer them meals. Or if we've agreed that they need to fill out some papers, or enroll in a program, and they don't, we have to tell them, ‘You'll need to do that before you can come back to the day shelter.'

"We get a lot of people really mad, but that's okay. Change is very difficult. A lot of times we're able to get through to them."

She's content with the organization's emerging focus on permanent supportive housing. VMC provides case workers to at-risk residents at several KCDC properties, as it will for the properties brought online as permanent supportive housing for the 10 Year Plan—plus it now owns the Fifth Avenue Hotel, which will become Minvilla. VMC efforts have placed 77 people overall in permanent supportive housing in 2007 and 46 as of Aug. 22 this year.

"For me, there's this feeling of having a monumental problem and chipping away at it, but chipping away with something that works," says Weatherstone. "Before we got involved with the idea of permanent supportive housing, we were just doing the same thing, seeing the same people, year after year after year. I was deeply depressed."

MORE RULES AND REGS?

Pioneer businesses eyeing the potential of the Downtown North redevelopment aren't the only ones concerned over increasing homeless services. Longtime residents in the area have pushed for stricter regulation of the socially-unacceptable behaviors of local street people, but they tend to run into legal and ethical roadblocks at every turn.

"KARM is not a confined setting," emphasizes Rosen. "We're not a lock-up facility, so we don't have the legal authority to keep someone confined." In fact, to stem a tide of illegal substances or fights, people are penalized if they enter the shelter for a meal and then depart, in a way that absolutely lets them out on the street again.

"If a person comes here and intends to spend the evening, if they go back out, they forfeit their bed for the night," explains Rosen. "We don't have in-and-out privileges."

Loitering and sleeping on the sidewalk are also tough to tackle in any cohesive fashion. Right now, the only enforcable restriction is against blocking sidewalk traffic—so as long as a pedestrian can step over or around even a slumbering street person, there's no infraction.

"We have limited legal ramifications for activities that are more the disorderly type," says Rausch, who's currently the west commander for the KPD and helped form the strategy for the 10-Year Plan before it became an official task force. "Generally what we see is folks who lay down and the sidewalk is still passable, so we have limited ability to enforce against them. Or if a person is obscuring traffic, stepping into the road at an intersection and causing traffic to back up, we can cite them, but otherwise we're very limited. We just have to deal with activity as we see it. We also have to understand, they're homeless. They don't have the ability to pay fines."

The 10-Year Plan's Finley thinks a legal change might be beneficial. "If a community says, and it's reflected in an ordinance, that it's not okay to lie down on the sidewalk and sleep there, and it's enforced, that will change the acceptable way to use the sidewalk."

Such changes would originate with City Council, says Rausch, and they would work through the city's law department. "They would do a lot of research on what other cities have done, and what courts have viewed as appropriate throughout the country—appellate courts and the Supreme Court, in particular."

While it won't be a formal part of the detailed Downtown North Redevelopment plan, "I absolutely think those ordinances need to be strengthened, and I think they will be," says Whetsel. "We basically need the sit, lie, and camping ordinance similar to the model they have in Portland, Ore."

Weatherstone, too, favors both stricter sidewalk ordinances and stricter treatment of panhandlers. "We've got to toughen up," she says. "It's not a legitimate activity, not when there are sources for food three meals a day. I get calls from church neighbors, ‘How do we handle panhandlers in the parking lot? They're saying they haven't eaten since yesterday.' I tell them, ‘Look at your watch. If it's 11, say, ‘Oh, but lunch is in a half hour.' Breakfast is at 7, dinner is at 5. You're never that far away from a meal."

People shouldn't worry that such ordinances and enforcement would be "too mean," to the homeless, says Weatherstone. "We expect accountability in our relationships, and it's degrading and dehumanizing to expect less than that of somebody just because they live on the streets. I think too much of the people we serve to deprive them of their dignity in order to make ourselves feel good... or at least not feel guilty."

The key to any ordinance, says Rausch, is that it concern a specific location, time, and activity. "With the homeless, when you start looking at regulations, you have to be very concerned with not infringing on anyone's constitutional rights," he says, noting that even the Portland model has faced some legal challenges. "An ordinance is not an easy fix. There is no easy fix. These folks, they're homeless. It's an unfortunate thing that happens. Everybody has to be somewhere."

Shaun Buckarma, too, is supportive of stricter control. "There has to be a certain amount of order, people have to feel safe," he says.

But he says he also knows that the homeless will always be among us—no law or 10-Year Plan will ever change that. "We saw people who had been coming to KARM for 10-15 years, they'll never get beyond that," he says. "They've been dependent so long now they're pretty much a slave to it."

And, too, says Sue Buckarma, "there's always going to be these people who do it, who have mental issues or are so totally independent they want to live on the streets. They're not good for business, they're not good for the people passing by—they're an intimidating sight. But it goes back to—these people have to have a place to go."

In his time traversing the country without a home, Shaun learned of the areas where a street person doesn't want to pause. "Sarasota, Vegas, Little Rock—it's pretty much illegal to be homeless there. If you don't have somewhere to go there, you're going to jail," he says. "But that's not human, either. They'll go somewhere where the rules are more lenient, become someone else's burden."

"I don't think they can put us on a ship to go to another planet, either," says Sue.

For Glowing Body's Hubbard, the homeless are not going to be the deal-breaker for the success of Downtown North. "The homeless here really haven't been a deterrent to our decision to locate near North Central. It's much more important to us to be close to downtown, the Three Rivers Market, Ironwood Studio. There's a lot of really happening things going on on Central... It's where we really have to be."

And in the final analysis, says Hubbard, mutual respect is the key. "These people were there first," she says, "and they are our neighbors like anyone else."