Seeking Shelter: Can the City's New Plan to Address Homelessness Avoid the Political Controversies that Doomed its Predecessor?

February is an important month for James Maley. His first anniversary as a resident of Minvilla Manor is Valentine's Day.

"It's too good to be true," he says shortly before that anniversary. It's a cloudy afternoon, but the three tall windows in his dorm room-like accommodations face Fifth Avenue and provide all the light necessary. "[Moving in] felt like the end of a long, long road."

Maley's road began in Charlotte, N.C., where he grew up just outside the city with his sister and parents. He met and married the woman who would become his wife there, before they moved to South Carolina. But then, Maley says, he fell in with the wrong people. He started using heroin, and had a run-in with police. After 16 years of marriage, he and his wife divorced in 2005. Maley hit the road shortly after that.

Eight years of drifting later, the 57-year-old Maley decided it was time to settle down.

He explains that when you walk into the Volunteer Ministry Center first thing in the morning, you must present a document verifying you're homeless (Maley got his from Knoxville Area Rescue Ministry). Clients who are serious about getting into permanent, supportive housing will get a provisional membership with VMC while they begin taking classes on life skills like financial management, anger management, and drug and alcohol treatment, if needed. Clients begin working with a case manager immediately.

When Maley sought the services, he was able to get an ongoing pain in his abdomen checked out. He'd gotten a perforation in his intestine, which needed to be operated on. He was in the hospital for more than two weeks before he was released. Maley received his care through the Knox County Health Department's indigent care program, which is where he continues to go for any medical attention he needs. Maley's waiting for his disability forms to be processed by Social Security so that he can start receiving an income.

He says the wait was worth it, though.

"They told me about a week before that they were getting an apartment ready for me. They let you come over and pick out your place," he says. "I was just ecstatic. The official lease-signing was at 2 p.m., so I had to wait a few hours [on move-in day]. We got it done by 2:30, and I came in here right after that. And I've been here ever since."

Maley is a good example of how local programs can help people get off the streets and into more stable lives. But the future of how the City of Knoxville addresses the ongoing problem of homelessness has been a bit murky for the past three years after the plug was pulled on its previous program, the Ten Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness. There's been little political action on the matter since then. Agencies like VMC have carried on with their flagship projects, but there was no unified vision or set of goals aligning those agencies and the city. That changed in January when the city released a draft of Knoxville's Plan to Address Homelessness. It's set to be discussed by City Council on March 13, and stakeholders are optimistic that this plan will succeed.

The new plan is not a Ten Year Plan 2.0, says Michael Dunthorn, the city's director of the office on homelessness.

"It will continually be revised as we move forward—to learn from what we're doing and to have it be a living document so that we can continue to press forward. The new plan is a framework for a process for keeping focused on the goals and the principles that are outlined," he says. "There are also things that worked in [the Ten Year Plan] that we want to hopefully continue. It's all those things. But it's not simply a response to what didn't work. It's not just an extension of the old."

So how will the city's new plan better address homelessness than its predecessor, and avoid the logistical and political pitfalls that ultimately doomed the Ten Year Plan?

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Though the Ten Year Plan offered pretty comprehensive strategies for dealing with chronic homelessness (employment opportunities and homelessness prevention are among the topics discussed in the plan), the development of permanent housing received the most attention. The Ten Year Plan called for the development of 400 units of permanent, supportive housing. Minvilla Manor, which opened in late 2011 in the North Central area, has 57 units, and Flenniken Landing, opened in 2012 in South Knoxville, has 48 units. Both of those developments received their fair share of criticism from the public, but not as much as proposed locations for developments in West Knoxville on Debusk Lane, Teaberry Lane, and at Lakeshore Park. The West Knoxville locations were met with a petition to halt those plans, and none were developed. But the development of these housing sites was born from a fundamental shift in attitudes about homelessness that happened in the early 2000s.

Dr. Roger Nooe, a retired social-work professor who taught at the University of Tennessee for 30 years and who continues to work in Knoxville's Community Law office, began doing studies on Knoxville's homeless population in 1986. He says he thought he'd do it once, and that would be it. Now he's currently wrapping up his latest homeless survey, which he's done consistently every two years. His studies have helped debunk the myth that other cities were shipping homeless people here in droves to take advantage of the services offered in Knoxville (when, in fact, about 80 percent of those surveyed in 2012 reported their last permanent address had been in Knoxville or Knox County, and 57 percent were originally from Tennessee). The 2012 study also found that homeless people most often come to Knoxville from elsewhere because services are easily accessed, or because their families moved here.

"It was a major issue. We became aware of [modern homelessness] in the late ‘80s. Before then, we thought of homelessness—we equated it to Skid Row [in big cities]. People got very interested in cities and smaller communities becoming aware of it. Even the media picked up on it. You didn't turn on the TV without something on homelessness," Nooe says.

During that time, the model of service for the homeless was to simply feed and clothe the homeless and wish them well, Nooe says. But that wasn't solving the problem. In fact, it was enabling homelessness by not requiring any accountability in exchange for services. But in the early 2000s, Nooe says people began to focus more on getting people off the streets, instead of just making them comfortable there. And as long-term mental health institutions like Lakeshore began attempting to get their patients back into mainstream society, the number of people on the street began to increase. Nooe's studies found a strong correlation between mental illness and homelessness (though studies in other places did not find mental institutions had much impact on homeless populations). The 2012 survey noted that about 50 percent of homeless people interviewed had been treated for "emotional problems."

Phillip Mangano, the executive director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness at the time, began a crusade get cities across the country to adopt 10-year plans to end chronic homelessness. And one of the emerging "best practices" was "housing first." Homelessness hasn't been ended anywhere because of this practice, but its use has shown homelessness can be reduced.

The idea with the housing first approach is that getting people into housing increases their chances of success with beating any addiction problems, stabilizing mental health, and getting a job. The chronically homeless, studies found, comprise about 10 percent of the entire homeless population, but use 50 percent of all available resources, which is why the group was targeted. But Nooe says there are reasons people were chronically homeless—which is defined by the federal government as homeless for at least a year, or have had at least four episodes of homelessness in the last three years—and those reasons needed to be addressed while people were getting into housing. That's how projects like Minvilla Manor and Flenniken Landing were conceived. The buildings offer permanent housing to people who are chronically homeless, along with constant case management to prevent them from falling back into patterns that caused them to be homeless in the first place. James Maley has a standing monthly appointment with his case manager. And it's a "best practice" for a reason. The Ten Year Plan cites programs in Houston and Los Angeles that used the "housing first" approach, and had an 80-90 percent rate of retention after a year. (Dunthorn points out that "we're beating that" in Minvilla and Flenniken, which both have at least a 90 percent retention rate.)

The Ten Year Plan was developed by a task force headed by Nooe and Dunthorn, and was released in 2005. It was, by several accounts, the first time heads of the major homeless agencies—the Salvation Army, KARM, and VMC—got together to lay out their goals, determine where they saw gaps in service, and plan how they could better serve the chronically homeless.

While cities were instructed by Mangano and the Department of Housing and Urban Development to develop 10-year chronic homelessness plans, another tool was being developed. HUD was giving grants to organizations in order to develop databases to track homeless people's activities called Homeless Management Information Systems. Nooe encouraged his colleague in the UT College of Social Work, David Patterson, to apply for a grant to develop a database for Knoxville and Knox County. In 2004, Knoxville Homeless Management Information System (Knox HMIS) went online. Agencies that received funding from HUD were required to use Knox HMIS, but it wasn't an easy culture change to make at first.

"Historically, if [agencies] kept records, they kept paper-based records, and that information—who they were working with, what they were doing—was not known to anyone. There was really no connection, there was no way of understanding who was being served, how many services were being provided," Patterson says. "But then for each agency it represented a huge cultural change. There was notable variation across agencies in terms of their willingness to put aside paper-based records, to use HMIS as their primary services record and case file."

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The Ten Year Plan got the ball rolling on coordinating efforts, got the attention of political figures, and changed attitudes of service providers in Knoxville. But the matter of where to develop housing for the formerly homeless received most of the public's attention.

Nooe acknowledges the Ten Year Plan is tainted by the disputes caused by the development of Minvilla Manor and Flenniken Landing.

"I think a couple of things could've happened. I'm not criticizing. I think the idea for more community input, and, this is where we probably fell down as professionals, more education," he says. People have to be ready for change, he says, and one way to create readiness for change is through education—people have to be given a chance to participate and learn for themselves what's going to happen.

There were meetings on the front end of the Ten Year Plan, Nooe says, but few people from the community showed up. So when it came time to have public information meetings before the start of development on Minvilla and Flenniken, people said they weren't given enough time to get the right information.

"I think people were led to believe that their property values would just be diminished. I think there was a fear of what kind of people are going to live in these houses. It wasn't always based on education and fact, it was based on fear and emotions," Nooe says.

Ginny Weatherstone, executive director of VMC, is more to the point.

"People wanted more input," she says. "The irony is that people didn't show up to add input."

Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett led the push to pull the plug on Ten Year Plan in Feb. 2011, just months after Minvilla opened, and months before Flenniken would welcome new residents. Amid political turmoil in the county (both related and unrelated to the Ten Year Plan), and loud protests against permanent housing development, Burchett and Knoxville Interim Mayor Daniel Brown called for a "reset" of the area's homelessness plan. That "reset" involved the resignation of Ten Year Plan director Jon Lawler. Though Brown and Burchett denied they were killing the plan, the intent was implied with the dissolution of the Office of the Ten Year Plan. That's when Ron Peabody, a West Knoxville resident who started the petition to prevent the development of the proposed Teaberry Lane location, and Stephanie Matheny, a local attorney and supporter of the Ten Year Plan, were recruited to head Compassion Knoxville. (Peabody eventually left the co-chair position and was replaced by John Fugate.)

Compassion Knoxville was designed as an opportunity for the public to voice their ideas on how homelessness should be handled in Knoxville, and collect "best practices" from experts. It was led by a task force that included agency heads and representatives from local churches and neighborhood associations. There was a lengthy series of public input meetings, which culminated in a report—not a plan, the task force emphasized—with 44 recommendations, many of which were publicly contested by Peabody. (The report suggested continuing the "housing first" approach, and limiting outside groups' ability to provide meals for the homeless without coordination with established agencies.) The report was released in August 2011, and the Compassion Knoxville project did not live much longer.

Matheny attended a Feb. 11 public information meeting on the city's new plan, and said at the end of the meeting, "I'm hearing a lot tonight what we heard in the Compassion Knoxville process, which is that the community education and communication is really an incredibly important component of this. People want to know more about the actual facts of homelessness, they want to know how they can help in a meaningful way."

Dunthorn, who led the public meeting, agrees with Matheny, and says, "Transparency is important. Finding a way to work through a difficult process with the community, and giving them the best information that you have; listening to what people have to say and what their concerns are, but—and I think there are some words in the new plan that mention this—it's about finding a balance between listening to, and trying to address, those types of concerns, but also remembering that there are fair housing laws, and there is a reason to do this type of housing. And it does work. And it is not a detriment to the community."

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The Ten Year Plan's stated focus was very narrow: chronic homelessness. Developing supportive housing overshadowed its other successes. And, as Dunthorn says, agencies not involved in those specific ventures weren't front and center.

The city's new plan, developed by the Mayor's Roundtable on Homelessness—composed of the mayor herself, 19 agency executives, city Chief Policy Officer Bill Lyons, Director of Community Development Becky Wade, and Dunthorn—has a much broader set of goals. Equal focus is being given to prevention of any homelessness, the importance of transitional housing in getting people to permanent residences, the unique needs of specific, vulnerable populations, and the roles faith-based groups must play in a coordinated effort to address the problems surrounding homelessness. And the plan acknowledges that none of these specific issues can be addressed on its own, or without coordination among agencies. Dunthorn also says that having a plan in place, with those specific groups targeted, will make Knoxville more competitive when applying for grants from HUD, which also targets the groups in the city's plan.

One agency actively reaching out to a specific population to prevent homelessness is the Volunteers of America. The VOA isn't represented on the Mayor's Roundtable, but the organization received a new grant last year to specifically address the needs of female veterans, a group the city's plan hopes to target. Byron Dickerson, the program manager of the Homeless Female Veterans and Veterans with Families program, says coordination will be key to catch women who can find help at the VOA.

"It's a hard population to reach," he says of female veterans. "[Usually] if they're homeless, they're with family."

So Dickerson and his colleagues go to churches, shelters, and other programs handing out cards, and spreading the word that they can help female veterans find housing or keep from being evicted, find jobs, and become completely independent. But Dickerson says catching people before they lose their houses or apartments is "extremely difficult."

"Folks, in general, will wait until the very last minute" to seek help, he says, which is why he's glad to see the city's recognition for the need for even more intensive coordination.

Dickerson's colleague, Carla Kimble, is in charge of the VOA's Supportive Services for Veterans with Families, and interacts with landlords on veterans' behalf. Her work is heavy on the prevention side, since the SSVF grant can help pay utilities bills and rent, among other bills.

"People who cannot pay their utilities bill, especially when they're on Section 8 vouchers, that's a warning sign," she says, and that's when intervention is most needed.

And the city's new plan proposes some solutions in these situations. The plan puts emphasis on catching people before they fall behind on bills that could lead to their eviction, like utilities.

"That was the impetus for the IBM Smarter Cities initiative, so now that process is in progress trying to look at how you get ahead of that curve, and use resources to weatherize so that we ... prevent people having that particular issue [that leads to] homelessness," Dunthorn says. "So much of what is seen as affordable housing in this community by definition of low rent does not coincide with housing that's well-weatherized. Low rent plus exorbitant utilities does not, in the end, equal affordable housing, which can cause homelessness."

The Smarter Cities Initiative's goal is to reduce the amount of money spent on exorbitant utilities bills on behalf of low-income people by weatherizing homes that may not have gotten the upgrades they needed. That includes things like providing energy-efficient light bulbs and properly caulking windows to keep the heat and cold out. The initiative is being paid for by a grant the city won in November 2012.

"Any time you're out of your own place, it's incredible hard to get back in with that eviction record," Dickerson says. "Once that cascade effect starts, it's hard to get back on your feet."

Marigail Mullin, the CEO of the YWCA in Knoxville, agrees that losing housing is a major obstacle for women, and says she's appreciative of the fact that transitional housing is recognized in the city's plan as an important step for some people. The women who come to the YWCA are there to correct issues in their lives that led to them being homeless, Mullin explains. So while they live there, residents pay weekly rent, cook for themselves, and attend life skill classes (budgeting, job searching, exercise classes) to better prepare for the responsibilities that come with permanent housing. And Mullin says the Y's program is working.

"Seventy-eight percent [of participants who stayed at the Y for 12 months] moved out to permanent housing. One hundred percent who are successful [in the program] go on to permanent housing. Most people are getting something out of this program," she says.

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Grant Standefer, the executive director of the Compassion Coalition, says he's a little confused by the calls for more involvement from faith-based organizations. KARM and VMC are faith-based, he says. And, quite often, the people working on the frontlines to end homelessness are there because their faith compels them, he adds.

"Could we do a better job? Yeah," he says. "But I do see some faith based groups out there."

The Compassion Coalition is a faith-based nonprofit whose mission is to inform and equip churches to address problems including poverty and homelessness.

"There are great opportunities for the faith community to get involved in structured ways...so they don't have to worried about being taken advantage of," Standefer says.

A concern of people involved with the city's previous efforts to involve the faith based community was that it was easy for groups to drop off sandwiches or coats to people on the street without realizing they were duplicating services.

"I don't want to limit that organization," Dunthorn says, "But I want to inform that Sunday School class that ‘Hey, we have a plan that's in place, where we're trying to coordinate resources. And you're offering a resource, you have a concern and a commitment to whatever level you have to try to address this issue. We want to invite you to participate in a way that collaborates with what everybody else is doing.'"

Standefer agrees, and that's why the Compassion Coalition is starting a program called Getting Ahead in a Just Getting By World. The program will involve training seven (as of now) organizations, including churches, how to lead a 16-week course for people who are living in poverty, on the brink of homelessness, or homeless in order to correct behaviors and habits that have led them to their current circumstances.

Standefer says this program, which he hopes will expand even further, will give more people in the faith community the chance to help the homeless without hurting the city's goals.

"I think there are going to be many opportunities for members of the faith community to engage with the [city's] plan," he says. "[This program] is a way that will be contributing to it."

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Agencies' uniform optimism about the plan hinges on three main things: successful coordination, communication with the public, and political will.

"The ongoing willingness to work together is going to be critical to the success of this plan," Standefer says. "It's too big a problem to address unless we're all working together."

Patterson, director of Knox HMIS, agrees and says he's always reaching out to new organizations to see if they'd be interested in joining the 16 agencies that currently use HMIS.

But if those conversations should lead anywhere, the public needs to be informed. And Dunthorn is acutely aware of that.

"For most people in the community, this is not the first thing they think about," he says. "It's something they think about during the holidays, it's something they think about when they see somebody out on the streets, or when they see a news story. A big part of my job...is going to the community, explain what it is we're trying to do, inviting them to participate in whatever way they want to participate."

"People have to feel like they have input and choices. That's a critical task," Nooe says.

But none of it's going to happen without political action. Standefer, Dickerson, and Weatherstone all say they have confidence in Mayor Madeline Rogero.

"Mayor Rogero's ability to lead is outstanding," Weatherstone says.

"One of the things I'm very pleased about is Mayor Rogero is personally involved. She chairs those [Roundtable] meetings herself," Standefer says. "That's critical. It seems high on her list of priorities."

"I do love the fact that the government is involved," Dickerson says. "I've been in other counties where they tried to address [homelessness] without the government and political will, and it didn't go anywhere."

And Dunthorn says the city is prepared to shoulder its responsibilities to the plan as part of the community. The first step in involving the community was the public information meeting on Feb. 11, where residents voiced their thoughts on the plan. Communication efforts, much like the meeting they attended, was at the center of the group's requests of the city.

Matheny, summing up the mood of the comments, noted the accountability and regular city reports included in the plan and "[urged] that that be kept as part of the plan."

The next step for ensuring success, Dunthorn says, will be getting the Knoxville City Council to adopt the plan. They'll have a workshop on the plan on March 13 at 5:30 p.m. at the City-County Building.

"This is a community issue, and solving it requires a community-wide response. So here we go," Dunthorn says.