What's Happening at Minvilla and Flenniken?

When Volunteer Ministry Center moved into its new headquarters at Fifth Avenue and Broadway in 2009, plans to turn the old Fifth Avenue Motel into permanent supportive housing for the chronically homeless were already underway, and VMC would run the site. Executive Director Ginny Weatherstone says she spent months visiting similar developments in Philadelphia, Chicago, Seattle, and Portland, picking up ideas and learning from mistakes.

"It gave us a lot to think about," Weatherstone says. It was an exciting time for VMC, which had successfully experimented with supportive housing at its original premises on Gay Street. But when the public began calling for more and more meetings to learn about Minvilla, Weatherstone clearly becomes frustrated.

"They just developed so much attention on the one strategy [in the Ten Year Plan]. There were other strategies that just didn't get the air time. It's not that we weren't working on them," she says. "People will always say they want more meetings."

But, Weatherstone says, "Minvilla has turned out to be not as scary as people thought it would be. Nothing succeeds like success."

In fact, there were 78 requests for service from the Knoxville Police Department at Minvilla in 2013, and 17 police reports were filed, mostly for disturbances within the premises or for sick people.

"I look at the 57 units across the street, and know some of the stories that come out of there, some of the transformations, and I have to say it's successful," Weatherstone says.

One of those success stories is Emmitt Howard, 66. The Polk County native became homeless in the 1990s, had passed through Knoxville once during his years on the road, and finally came back in 2008 when he was ready to make a change in his life. He lived in VMC's apartments at the Gay Street location, and then moved into Minvilla when it opened in 2010.

Howard says he heard voices in his head before seeking help at VMC. His case manager, Megan Lappas, says it took a while for VMC to understand that Howard's actions—throwing things around, mainly—were calls for help he couldn't fully articulate. Howard's ID card photo of him when he was first entered into the program shows how gaunt he looked. Today, Howard's face has filled in, he's on medication that quiets the voices, and he's found a group of friends through a program called Circles of Support, which the Compassion Coalition organizes.

"I've got good thoughts instead of bad thoughts. I went to a baseball game [with friends from Circles of Support]—that's a good thought," Howard says. He celebrated his birthday with those friends in January at the Golden Corral, where his friends surprised him by having the wait staff sing "Happy Birthday," and bring him a piece of chocolate cake. "It was warm with ice cream and everything. It was real good," Howard says. "[Circles of Support]'s made a real difference."

And the simple facts of having a warm place to sleep at night and plenty of food to eat are most valuable to Howard.

"I was on the street so long. It's nice to be able to get up and fix yourself a bologna sandwich, or fix a peanut butter sandwich," he says. "I wish I'd known about this place a long time ago."

And VMC's budget doesn't rely on any Ten Year Plan-specific funding source. In fact, only nine percent of the organization's 2012 budget came from the government ($119,205), and that encompasses city, county, state, and federal funding, mostly from grants won by VMC. Its largest sources of funding came from foundations and fundraisers. It's entire budget in 2012 (the most recent budget info available) was $1,313,927.

Flenniken Landing serves the same purpose as Minvilla, but is run by the Southeastern Housing Foundation. Charles Rogers, the program director there since May 2013, says all but one of the 48 units is filled, and that final apartment is being cleaned up for a new tenant. The Southeastern Housing Foundation is a nonprofit foundation (the same one that won the county bid to renovate the Historic Knoxville High School), and funds its projects through various grants from private and public sources, and tax credits. Its affiliates and partners include both the city and county, HUD, the Compassion Coalition, the Knoxville/Knox County Homeless Coalition, and a handful of other private and public organizations.

Though the South Knoxville development faced some strong reactions from neighbors, it too had a low number of incidents that required police assistance last year—43 calls for service were made in 2013, and 10 police reports were filed (also mostly for disturbances).

"Since I've been here, we've had one fight. We don't tolerate drugs, or violence," Rogers says.

And Rogers is realistic about Flenniken's residents. "We're going to have some successes, and we're going to have some failures. My goal is for people to come here, regain their self-esteem...and become productive citizens," he says.

He's working to get residents involved in the community. He has a partnership with the East Tennessee Technology Access Center, a nonprofit that helps connect people with disabilities with helpful tech devices. The ETTAC now employs 10 Flenniken residents on a part-time basis. Residents also spend time at the South Knoxville Community Center.

"We're doing our part," he says. "We're not sweeping [homelessness] under the table."