Recent Homelessness Community Forum continues the conversation
When Nikki Elliott and the Downtown Knoxville Alliance recently announced a community meeting on homelessness, no one expected a solution to one of our thorniest issues to come to the Tennessee Theater that night. About 75 people gathered and in her opening remarks, Ms Elliott summed it up: “We are frustrated and we are not solving the problem tonight. She said she hopes we can work as a team to improve the situation.
The purpose of the follow-up panel interview was simply to share information about what is being done to address the issue and introduce those doing the work to the community. It is hoped that this will start a conversation about how people experiencing homelessness could be helped, while minimizing the issues currently faced by residents and businesses.
Capt. Don Jones, designated by KPD to focus on downtown, Todd Gilbert of Knox Area Rescue Ministries, Major Cam Henderson, Executive Director of Salvation Army, Bruce Spangler, Executive Director of Volunteer Ministries, Palmer Cantler, minister of Church Street United Methodist, Matt Tillery, vice president of rental assistance with the Knoxville Community Development Program, and Mike Dunthorn and Shawn Griffith, each of the homelessness coordinators for the city of Knoxville .
Woven throughout their lists of services (available elsewhere, including in articles on this website), the responses also indicated the perspectives and approaches taken or promoted by each agency or group represented. Todd Spangler (KARM), for example, noted that while four to five thousand come to them for shelter each year, he emphasized transitional services. such as connecting residents to services and increasing their stability. He stressed the importance of having residents who work for what they get.
Major Henderson emphasized the “mission of the Salvation Army to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and meet the needs of everyone.” He stressed the importance of helping people work through their trauma and said they had helped 161 people find permanent accommodation last year.
Bruce Spangler (VMC) said their focus over the years has shifted to creating more permanent supportive housing, which seemed universally supported by the panel. He touted the success of Minvilla Manor as an example and expressed optimism about the 48 units coming online with Caswell Manor. He said homelessness is a community issue that can only be solved through public policy.
Captain Jones said in his 36 years of experience he had learned that many homeless people had ‘lost hope and existed’, saying they had lost all desire to live. Saying the police are understaffed and the local situation mirrors the rest of the country, he said the force had tried to focus more on helping people with mental health issues, rather than just stop them.
He mentioned crisis intervention teams and the focus on reconnecting homeless people with their families. He also acknowledged the frustration of downtown residents. He said police were struggling to get help and with limited drug and mental health support. He said we had to “break the pattern”. He said it would take commitment from state and national leaders, a sentiment echoed by Michael Dunthorn who said, “We need citizens to talk to their state legislators.”
Palmer Cantler said inner-city churches do direct ministry, like serving meals at Church Street, UMC, but she said the focus is on connecting them with agencies that can really help their situation. . When asked if it was useful for organizations to distribute food and clothing on the streets, and if not, how this could be communicated to faith groups in the area, Reverend Cantler said that this guy helper makes helper feel good, but not really providing the necessary connection to services, calling it “transactional helper” and further saying that it “cuts goals”.
Captain Jones said the distribution of food and clothing at Krutch Park was technically not permitted. He said of people who do it regularly, “They’re compassionate,” but if you “give it to them constantly, they lose the skills to help themselves.” He pleaded for the public to support services that try to provide them with longer-term help. He gave the example of a woman who had been on the streets for years because of alms, but when she started to trust a couple who spent time with her, they managed to get her off the streets. .
Matt Tillery pointed out that the KCDC is working, through housing vouchers, to build a network of landlords who will be resources to get people off the streets or to help prevent them from becoming homeless. He emphasized housing that is not centralized and obviously identifiable as subsidized. Shawn Griffith said people need to be willing to have housing in their neighborhood, saying that was ‘the root of the problem’. Reverend Cantler added that we must have both “mercy and justice”.
Mr Spangler said: ‘It’s easy to put pathology on people. Housing must be available, appropriate and accessible. . . it is essential to change things.
Responding to a series of questions from the audience, KARM’s Todd Gilbert clarified that when most people say they were kicked out of their agency, that’s not true. The only bans are due to violence, people convicted of making methamphetamine in public housing and convicted sex offenders.
The most interesting twist during the Q&A session came from a woman who stepped up to the microphone and said, “I’m part of the problem. She went on to explain that she brings food to Krutch Park every Saturday and has fed “50 people in the last week”. She said she ‘feeds people like you are’ and urged agencies to ‘send your outreach people’. She was applauded by part of the audience and none of the panelists wanted to confront or contradict her.
Time expired just after Captain Jones said people weren’t ‘allowed’ to sleep on the pavement and he told them to ‘move on’. A final speaker pointed out that the proposed solutions are long-term and that the current situation is only getting worse. The person said, “Something’s not working.” Nobody on the panel answered.
I followed the meeting by contacting Shawn Griffith to confirm and clarify what I thought I understood he said that evening. He said around 700 people or families were relocated in 2021. He said this included 619 people who were quickly relocated – which is extremely important – and only around 65 were granted permanent supportive housing. . The 65-year-old would be part of the group that most of us probably photographed when we had the conversation. He said the system would be able to house more of the chronically homeless population if there were more housing options. Currently, this system is operating at full capacity and people can only be placed there when someone exits.
I also spoke to Ms. Elliott. She said she thought it went well given everyone’s level of frustration with the issue. She pointed to a few speakers from the audience who said they had learned more about the help that is available. She felt that a necessary educational step has been taken and that future meetings can focus more on solutions to specific parts of the problems.
She is particularly concerned about alms and the dependency they create. She also questions the appropriateness of a system that allows mass distribution of unregulated food to crowds of people. She would like to see more people involved and more political involvement in the issue. She was delighted that two members of the city council had chosen to attend, but wished there had been more support.