About this Series
Last spring, when the city of Knoxville cleaned up its largest homeless camp, along Second Creek downtown, journalists Amy Smotherman Burgess and Kristi Nelson wondered where its residents went.
That led them to explore issues surrounding homelessness and affordable housing.
Housing solves homelessness, but access can be challenging.
The city says it’s not acceptable for people to live in camps, so what’s the solution?
* * * * * * * * * *
In mid-May, the city cleared out Knoxville’s largest homeless camp, hauling off 160 tons of trash from a polluted area along Second Creek downtown that was home to at least 40 people.
By the middle of the next week, Knoxville was seeing record-high temperatures that continued through September, with some days in the 90s. In the blazing sun, where were those people sheltering?
Knox Area Rescue Ministries didn’t see a significant influx of people in its shelter in that time period, said Sue Renfro, director of marketing and communications for KARM.
Some might have gone to other camps, although the city has been cracking down, trying to head off new semi-permanent camps, especially large ones.
Some might have shelled out for hotel rooms, at least for a night, or found friends to crash with.
But at least a few of the people who lived in that camp, said Misty Goodwin, are now home.
In Knox County, and nationally, ending homelessness isn’t as simple as finding shelter for someone. It usually requires navigating a complex network of challenges. Is housing available? Is available housing affordable, even with utilities added in? And what circumstances might prevent someone from being able to stay there permanently?
Goodwin is program director of the Knoxville-Knox County Community Action Committee’s Homeward Bound Outreach Program, which includes several other programs. One, funded by the federal department of Housing and Urban Development, is Resources Extended to Assist the Chronically Homeless, or REACH. It provides street outreach and case management for people who live in camps, vehicles and under bridges, hoping to bring them into shelters and, ultimately, permanent housing, while addressing problems they might have with substance abuse or getting and keeping a job.
REACH had nearly two months’ notice that the camp was coming down, Goodwin said, and only a few residents were still on-site when the city finally came to clean it up.
“There were a handful of people living in the camps who were working, and for those people we did try to find affordable housing for them and get them housed,” she said. “But most of those who are camping are singles with little or no income. … Singles out there who are currently homeless, we really have no choice but to put them on a waiting list at KCDC. And that waiting list is about two or three years long right now.”
Meanwhile, the city is forcing the hand of those street campers, sending them undercover, camping farther away and alone or in smaller groups.
That’s because to continue to let people living outside would be accepting that “a substandard living condition” is all right for that population, said Michael Dunthorn, program director for the city’s Office on Homelessness — and it’s not, he said. The goal is getting all the campers in a “permanent stable situation,” he said.
“The point of this is not to just make them go away,” Dunthorn said. “The point is, we really want people to access resources.”
“We know there’s more need than there are resources,” Dunthorn said.
That goes double for housing.
Long wait or high rent
The high-rise apartments operated by KCDC are generally the first line, Goodwin said. People can get on the waiting list, and if they have a criminal history, they can go through an appeals process with help from a case manager, she said.
In the past, those buildings had high turnover. That was good for people newly seeking housing, but bad for those leaving, many of whom were likely homeless again, Dunthorn said — this time with a string of burned bridges to prevent them from getting back in.
Now, homelessness prevention initiatives have reduced turnover in those buildings, but that also means apartments come open much less frequently, he said.
“The other piece to affording housing is just finding landlords that are willing to work with us that have halfway decent rents,” Goodwin said. “On average, right now, the cheapest thing we’ve been able to find people is around $425 (monthly) for a studio apartment — and it’s not a very nice place.”
A full-time employee earning minimum wage in Tennessee, which is $7.25 per hour, would earn $15,080 a year. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, defines “affordable housing” as not more than 30 percent of income, including utilities. By HUD standards, he or she could afford $377 per month for housing.
Goodwin said high utilities costs keep many older buildings or trailer homes from qualifying for CAC rent assistance programs. Redevelopment, especially in South Knoxville, has eliminated some lower-cost housing. Motels, even those with extended stays, don’t qualify because they’re not considered “permanent housing.” Nor do campgrounds.
“And we really look at the affordability,” Goodwin said. “We’re not going to put you somewhere that we know you’re not going to be able to afford next month.”
HUD has offered some grant money for emergency rehousing, paying the first three months’ rent for qualified individuals.
“What they’re finding out, though, is because people can’t find living-wage jobs, they can’t afford that apartment or house beyond that three months,” Goodwin said. “Because they’re not able to make that much money. Once the assistance ended, they lost the housing.”
Still, since January, REACH has housed 59 people, each of whom was living on the streets, in camps, in cars or at a shelter. Goodwin said as of now, all are still housed.
More poor, less housing
Are more people homeless now than 25 years ago? The National Coalition for the Homeless says yes, and there are two reasons: There’s less affordable housing, and more very poor people.
According to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, an eighth of the country’s low-income housing has vanished since 2001. HUD saw its budget cut in half, losing 10,000 units of subsidized low-income housing.
Since 2008, more than 5 million homes have gone into foreclosure — at one point, one in 10 homes with a mortgage. A 2010 National Housing Conference study found over a decade, 200,000 subsidized low-income units in the U.S. were demolished rather than being brought up to code. New construction hasn’t matched that.
Gentrification of formerly run-down neighborhoods improves property value and business investment but often forces out low-income people as housing prices rise and older units are replaced with business or newer housing designed to attract higher-income people.
The decrease in affordable housing affects not only chronically homeless people hoping to find housing, but also those teetering on the edge of being able to afford housing now — one or two paychecks away from being out on the street. Among Knoxville’s homeless, 38 percent reported their last residence before becoming homeless was rental property, according to the Knoxville-Knox County Homeless Coalition’s 2016 biennial study, released in June.
Then there are those who have issues other than income.
The federal government’s Cooperative Agreements to Benefit Homeless Individuals, or CABHI, grants are designed to help agencies get permanent housing and services for chronically homeless people — including families, youth and veterans — who also have substance abuse disorders, serious mental illness or emotional disturbance, or both at once.
Helen Ross McNabb Center, which got a CABHI grant in December 2015, operates 100 permanent supportive housing units in Knox County and 11 in Hamilton County. Of those, 23 are designated for veterans and 32 for single women with children. That leaves 56 that can be used for single adults, who must be homeless and have mental and/or substance abuse issues but don’t have to be McNabb clients. But turnover is low — McNabb Center reports a 92 percent retention rate — and there’s usually a waiting list.
16 years on the street
Ron Winchester, 52, has been on the waiting list for McNabb’s supportive housing for more than two years. He’s been homeless 16, since coming to Knoxville from North Carolina with an acquaintance, a local high-school teacher.
In the beginning, work with Labor Ready — for whom he’d worked in North Carolina also — was plentiful. He made $300-$400 some weeks, regularly working dual daily jobs cleaning up construction sites or doing yardwork beginning very early in the morning.
“I could leave one job, relax for two or three hours, then go to another job,” Winchester said.
That left him on the street for a minimal amount of time. He didn’t like shelters, didn’t like having to deal with other homeless people. Occasionally, he’d eat or take a shower there, but mostly he kept to himself.
Winchester stayed under the radar, he said. He slept in places carefully chosen for their isolation. He kept his belongings to a minimum; they fit inside a backpack, which he didn’t carry, lest people realize he was homeless. He was careful about hygiene.
Then the economy faltered, and the Labor Ready jobs dried up. For a while, he slept in a car in the back of a small used-car lot. The owner let him stay as a sort of night watchman, he said, but the mosquitoes were deterrent enough for most intruders.
He slept for a period in a crawl space under a house now used as a business. That owner never knew he was there, he said.
He’s slept under bushes, in landscaping, in abandoned houses, up against falling buildings — always alone. From his hiding places, he’s silently witnessed the best and worst of human nature, he said.
Winchester carries a cell phone and makes regular calls to his mother in North Carolina, “so she won’t worry about me.” He has an adult son who doesn’t know he’s homeless.
Yet he’s never applied for public housing. He’s not worried about his criminal record keeping him out, as many potential applicants are; Winchester’s record of criminal trespass, public intoxication and related charges all are misdemeanors. But KCDC “sounded like too many hoops to jump through,” he said.
When McNabb Center began administering his mental-health treatment, Winchester learned the nonprofit could also help him find steady work and housing.
It comes at good time for him. Years of sleeping on the ground for short periods, waking up to keep moving, have taken their toll, physically and mentally.
“Just having a place to stay, nobody saying what time you gotta go, I could sleep for three or four days,” he said.
“I’ve been out in the streets so long, maybe I’ve gotten a little too used to it. Maybe I won’t know how to react in my own place. It’s an adjustment.”
Once housing is available, Winchester is a candidate for CABHI. But not everyone is — sometimes by choice.
‘Lost their security’
More than half — 57 percent — of Knox County’s homeless self-report having mental illness, according to KnoxHMIS. Agencies that work with the chronically homeless say it’s likely far more.
There are services to help them, and most would meet the guidelines and “at the moment are moving surprisingly quickly through the safety net” of McNabb Center, Cherokee Health Systems and Peninsula Health, Goodwin said. “That’s not so much the issue. It’s getting them to want to connect. Some are so ill they don’t know they’re ill. They don’t want help.”
There are other barriers, she added, like paperwork.
“It’s challenging to get all the things you need for someone who’s mentally ill — for instance, a birth certificate,” Goodwin said. “It’s relatively easy to do if you know your mother’s maiden name and where you were from and what city you were born in, but sometimes with mental illness you can’t even get that much out of them.”
Another federal program — SSI/SSDI Outreach, Access and Recovery, or SOAR — trains case managers and others to help homeless clients navigate the process of applying for disability benefits and, by extension, TennCare or Medicare — a process beyond the reach of some with mental illnesses. Right now, the government estimates only 10 percent to 15 percent of homeless people access those benefits. In Knox County, in 2014, before SOAR, about 16 percent of homeless collected disability benefits, according to the Knoxville-Knox County Homeless Coalition’s 2016 biennial study; now, it’s 25 percent.
Moreover, those that do get benefits are vulnerable to exploitation, the study said: More than one-third receiving SSI or SSDI had a payee other than “self.”
Angela Gibson said the closing of the camps themselves have been a setback for many homeless.
Gibson, years past her own struggle with addiction and homelessness, now runs a grassroots organization, Miss Angie’s, out of her South Knoxville apartment. Twice a week, she and others go downtown with food, blankets and hygiene items for the homeless there.
“They’ve lost their security and regressed to old behaviors: anger, hate, addiction,” Gibson said of former camp residents who are still on the street. She’s noticed weight loss, more mental illness symptoms, she said. “It’s just like an earthquake has happened. We’re seeing our folks shaken up. … That was their home.”
Gibson said the camps “contained” many of the homeless, who she said now have been forced into suburban neighborhoods, potentially “acting out” and increasing the crime rates there. But Knoxville Police Department Sgt. Sammy Shaffer, who oversees downtown officers’ dealings with the homeless, said he’s not aware of an increase in crime in the neighborhoods surrounding downtown, and KPD’s numbers don’t indicate there has been one.
Gibson said the number of homeless hasn’t decreased; they’re just more scattered.
“They’re sleeping on gravel; they’re sleeping on pavement,” she said. “It breaks my heart to know these folks are living here not only without walls, but they’re living here without love. We try to meet every need they have: food, clothing, hygiene. But the most basic need they have is love.”
The Knoxville Homeless Collective, a 3-year-old group of homeless and formerly homeless people, maintains the way the city treats its homeless is demoralizing. The collective, having unsuccessfully attempted to have City Council add its Homeless Bill of Rights to a monthly meeting agenda, organized a march Sept. 21 downtown, presenting an open letter to Mayor Madeline Rogero signed by collective leader Eddie Young. In part, it urges the city to designate public “city-sanctioned spaces” where homeless people can legally live outside without fear of eviction or prosecution, a concept Dunthorn said underscores the idea that homelessness is an “acceptable living situation,” which the city does not want to reinforce.
“I had a conversation with a KPD officer a couple of weeks ago and I posed to him the same question I’m asking you, ‘Where do they go?’,” Young wrote in the letter. “His answer was surprising, but true. After a long pause, ‘They hide,’ he said. I don’t blame the officer, he only enforces the laws that you all codify. …
“We have citizens, human beings, hiding in the woods as though they were undocumented. And the number is much larger than we can report. If we’re generous and say we have some 800 people on a given night experiencing homelessness, then we are still 350 emergency beds short.”
Even if there were enough shelter beds for every homeless person in Knox County, Gibson doesn’t have any trouble understanding why many of the people her ministry serves wouldn’t use them.
Some have been banned from KARM, though Dunthorn said the city is trying to work out a new “streamlined” appeals process with the shelter. Some don’t like the curfew and the early “lights-out.” Some have had bad experiences with staff or other residents.
Sex offenders can’t stay at shelters, and are hard to house in general because of the restrictions on what they can’t live near: libraries, schools, churches, child-care centers and certain other public spaces.
And mixed-gender couples and families often want to stay together, which they can’t do at most shelters.
Goodwin said she’s seen people who choose to stay on the street prepare for extreme weather, collecting extra blankets or heating sources during winter or saving up for a few days in a motel during the hottest days of summer rather than going to a shelter.
“Knox Area Rescue Ministries is a real asset to our community, but … some people don’t feel comfortable there,” Goodwin said. “Some are afraid their stuff will get stolen. Some don’t want to leave their belongings,” because KARM limits the amount of possessions they can bring inside.
Ron Winchester said he always preferred to be on his own, rather than in a large dorm full of other men.
‘What normal is’
At the beginning of September, Winchester’s wait was over. He moved into an apartment. Though he shares the kitchen, living room and bathroom with three other men, each has his own room.
“We hardly ever see each other,” he said. “Everybody minds their own business.”
To finally have his own space is “wonderful — I mean, it’s just marvelous,” he said. “I can sleep as long as I want to. I can cook what I want to cook, eat when I get ready.”
His first morning, he fried eggs and sausage.
Winchester said he told his family back in North Carolina that he has an apartment.
“Everybody’s happy for me,” he said.
He has a steady stream of lawn clients and picks up odd jobs here and there. Now, after a long day of mowing grass in the sun, he can come home and shower, he said. With money he has saved, he’s ordered, for his own room, a microwave and television. He’s most looking forward to watching football.
“I like the Redskins,” he said, “but I believe the Vikings are going to do it this year.”
Just a bachelor planning a normal Monday night?
“I’ll be happy — I’m happy already,” Winchester said. “But I gotta find out what ‘normal’ is again.”
* * * * * * * * * *
The first thing Shelley Frakie notices is how quiet it is.
After all, it’s been 13 years since Frakie has been able to close the door behind her and be alone.
Frakie is used to falling asleep to the sound of trains and traffic on bridges above her, roughly shaken awake by someone telling her to move.
So her new studio apartment seems spacious. Open expanses of blank walls. Closets and cabinets to fill. Endless opportunity — and silence.
As soon as she can, Frakie brings in a television. She leaves it on all the time.
Frakie, 47, was homeless “off and on” for the past 25 years — steadily for the past 13. Early on, she met Roosevelt Bethel, who with his partner, Carl Williams, has spent decades befriending Knox County’s “street homeless” through their job with the Knoxville-Knox
County Community Action Committee’s REACH, or Resources Extended to Assist the Chronically Homeless, a program funded by a grant from the federal Housing and Urban Development agency.
More than six years ago, Bethel determined Frakie was serious about something she’d never had: a home all her own. On June 23, Frakie signed the lease, tearfully got her keys and moved in.
In Knox County, the demand for public housing far exceeds the available units — especially for single, childless adults, Bethel said. For someone who’s been chronically homeless, he said, staying housed can be a challenge. Someone who moves in and then gets booted back out burns bridges that make it hard to get re-housed. Bethel said when he helps settle homeless people in housing, he plans for it to be permanent — and he has a high success rate. About 90 percent of the people he finds housing for are still there a year later.
“I won’t put you in something where I know in a month, two months, you’re going to be out,” Bethel said. “That’s worse than getting it in the first place.
“But I have a great feeling about Shelley because this is something she really wants herself. And she’s been waiting for this for six years, for this opportunity to get housing. I don’t think she will do anything to ruin it. I think she’ll be there a long, long time.”
Frakie didn’t move into public housing. Her apartment is at Flenniken Landing, a 48-unit permanent supportive apartment building in South Knoxville, located in a remodeled school.
An initiative of the Knoxville Leadership Foundation, Flenniken Landing provides on-site case management and services to all residents, men and women who have been chronically homeless, with a goal of “reintegrating” them in the community. Rent for Frakie, whose income in recent years has come from collecting aluminum cans and scrap metal, will be $50 a month.
Bethel has a plan for Frakie. He will help her apply for disability benefits, so she’ll have a regular income, and food stamps. He wants her to enroll in a program through Steps House to help her beat her longtime alcohol abuse problem, exacerbated after the death of her fiancé from cancer several years ago.
He follows Frakie into her new apartment with a box of items someone who’s been homeless for more than a decade wouldn’t necessarily have. Paper towels. A broom and dustpan. A frying pan. Dishes. A shower curtain. And, through REACH, he’s paid her first year of rent.
“She won’t have anything to worry about besides staying out of jail and staying housed,” Bethel said. The bulk of the charges on Frakie’s 12-page criminal history are public intoxication charges — she has more than 150 of them. The rest are misdemeanors common to street homeless: criminal trespass, disorderly conduct, obstructing the sidewalk, public indecency and indecent exposure, from relieving herself outside. “All stuff from being on the streets,” Bethel said.
Frakie is ready to close the door on that life — she thinks. She doesn’t plan to tell anyone she’s known from the streets where her new apartment is. She doesn’t want visitors.
“Locking the doors,” Frakie said, when asked what she’s looking forward to. “Being alone. Taking a bath. Going to sleep — on sheets. The simple things in life.”
But first, she needs a ride back to the mission district. There are people she needs to talk to, items she wants to collect.
For agencies that serve the chronically homeless, permanent supportive housing opens up options for people who would be waiting years for public housing, or who can’t maintain Section 8 housing — for which the government temporarily provides vouchers to help with rent — long-term. Permanent supportive housing is for those who need extra help to make sure they don’t end up back on the street.
In Knox County, besides Flenniken Landing, there’s Minvilla Manor, a 57-unit apartment building run by Volunteer Ministry Center, which provides “moderate” support services. Positively Living, in East Knoxville, has 24 beds for formerly homeless men with HIV or AIDS, mental illness or substance abuse problems. Catholic Charities of East Tennessee operates 15 supportive housing units for senior citizens. Helen Ross McNabb Center maintains 111 permanent supportive housing units — 100 in Knox County, 11 in Hamilton County — including 23 designated solely for veterans and 32 for single women with children.
All the agencies report a high retention rate. McNabb Center, Minvilla and Flenniken exceed 90 percent. Data from the Knoxville Homeless Management Information System indicates the average length of stay for residents in permanent supportive housing in Knox County in 2015 was more than two years.
Frakie’s story of homelessness started with a childhood shuttled between divorced parents, one with mental illness. She didn’t finish high school but worked as a dancer and dreamed of being an artist. She didn’t have rules and began drinking at an early age. As an adult, she experienced periods of stability, the longest when she was engaged to and living with a man who later developed an aggressive cancer. When he died, the downward spiral sent her back to alcoholism and life in the streets. Though she occasionally showered at the shelters, she rarely stayed, finding the rules constraining, the people rude.
A month later, Frakie is settling in at Flenniken. She’s taken several long bus trips to her mother’s apartment, each time lugging back a suitcase stuffed with belongings she had stored there: art supplies, music boxes, jewelry and makeup, things to hang on the bare walls.
And a microwave cookbook — it’s been a long time since Frakie owned a stove, and she can’t quite get the hang of her new one.
“I thought I was going to make me some toast, and I put the broiler on, I thought,” Frakie said, laughing. “I came out of the bathroom, and both of the eyes on the left side were on! I have not figured it out.”
So she’s sticking to the microwave, in which she’s already cooked an entire stuffed chicken by following a recipe from her book.
Bethel has helped Frakie get food stamps, and she marvels at having a refrigerator with food in it. On the street, she had nowhere to store perishables.
Though she slept outside some during her first week at Flenniken, Frakie is now spending nights in her apartment except when visiting her mother, who’s gravely ill, in her apartment across town. Still, her twin bed is spread with the rough gray blanket given to street homeless by various agencies. It’s something familiar in the new place.
And she’s grown to relish something unfamiliar: the power to decide when she eats, sleeps, showers, without having to ask permission.
“I have a sense of control over my own life,” Frakie said. “It freaks me out a little bit — waking up and being able to go to the bathroom, not having to worry if there’s anybody around. I’ve got my own bathroom now — and toilet paper! I can pee when I want! People take that for granted. I went to jail once for four days for having diarrhea. They called it ‘indecent exposure.’ ”
Yet Frakie still struggles with the bottle. In part, she’s grieving the impending loss of her mother. She’s also unable to hide from emotions she’s long ignored.
“I lock the door, and then I’m all by myself, alone with my thoughts,” Frakie said. “Living on the street, I didn’t have time to think. I was just trying to stay alive.”
In September, Frakie’s mother died. When Frakie was living on the street, she said, she had to call her mother daily and check in.
Telling her mother she had a new apartment, a permanent home, was one of the most satisfying days of Frakie’s adult life, she said.
“I wanted her to see she didn’t fail,” Frakie said. “I wanted her to see, ‘I’m not on the street, you don’t have to worry about me.
“’Don’t worry that I’m going to die on the street. Now, I’m not. ”
* * * * * * * * * *
Knoxville Police Officer Thomas Clinton starts this hot August morning like most of his others: under a bridge downtown, surrounded by the detritus of humans who have been living outside.
Dirty clothes and blankets mix with food trash, cigarette wrappers, soft drink bottles. Burned metal spoons hint at a more serious vice. Near a plastic bucket that functions as a toilet lies a copy of comedian Mindy Kaling’s “Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns).”
Next to it lies the inevitable Sharpie, which panhandlers routinely use to hand-letter cardboard scraps, begging for money to buy whatever they can’t salvage from castoffs. “Please,” reads one. “Anything helps.”
Clinton isn’t here to take the camp’s residents to jail. But he needs to let them know they can’t stay here, on public property, any longer.
They aren’t here now, but he knows they’ll be back. Clinton leaves a notice, weighted down by a canister, on a padded storage bench in the middle of the gravel. The city will come in four or five days to take all this away, it says. Call this number for help.
Over the past three years, the city and KPD have refined their procedures for dealing with “street homeless,” those who live outdoors, in abandoned buildings or cars, who make up about 10 percent of the city’s total homeless population. In 2015, Knox County’s street homeless numbered 928, a 14 percent increase over 2014, according to the 2015 Knoxville Homeless Management Information Study. About a third are concentrated around downtown.
Police response used to start a cycle of citations. Homeless would get a ticket for a fine they wouldn’t pay with a court date they didn’t keep, which led to a warrant that landed them in jail. About 71 percent of Knox County’s homeless have been in jail, according to the Knoxville-Knox County Homeless Coalition’s biennial study, not counting 22 percent who have been in state or federal prison.
But “if you go to jail, you come back out homeless,” Clinton said. “It doesn’t change your status.”
That’s the puzzle he’s trying to solve: how to help that small percentage of the homeless population that doesn’t already use services like the shelter at Knox Area Rescue Ministries, the programs at Volunteer Ministry Center or Salvation Army, the resources offered by the Community Action Committee or Helen Ross McNabb Center.
“A lot of the homeless already seek help,” Clinton said. “I’m dealing with a smaller percentage who have lost hope, or don’t want help. … Hopefully, we can figure out the root cause of why they’re staying out there, versus using the services, and we can change some of the things we’re doing on our end — the city, and the service providers — to address that.”
Under a bridge on railroad property, he gives a young woman who has both mental illness and substance abuse problems the number of a local agency to call for help. Then he asks her, “If I could assist you in getting home to Nashville, would that help you in permanently getting off the street?”
He’s exploring asking the city for money for bus tickets for some homeless who might have homes to go back to in other cities — though almost three-quarters of Knox County’s homeless said they’re from Knox or a surrounding county.
Since March, two months into this beat, Clinton has carried a notebook in which he documents every homeless person he encounters, citing their names, locations, age, where they’re from, whether they’re veterans or have mental illness or substance abuse issues and any other information he can collect. To date, he’s documented 297 homeless, around 235 of whom he says still are camping nightly throughout the city.
“My goal is to get them off the streets, not to arrest them,” he said. “They seem to open up more to me because of that.”
Citywide, KPD’s policy on homeless camps has become more “reactive” in recent years, said KPD Sgt. Sammy Shaffer. The police respond mainly to emergency calls — assaults, usually — or complaints from property owners. Response usually consists of warning the campers to leave the property, giving them time to collect their belongings, including important papers such as ID and Social Security forms.
“In the old days, we got a complaint, we went in and cleaned it out,” Shaffer said. “People were, at times, losing some possessions. We had to ask, is there a better way that we can do it? Sometimes, that’s all these people have.”
Now, if possible, “we try to give them a few days,” Shaffer said.
Police also have moved away from citing the homeless for misdemeanors such as criminal trespassing or public intoxication. It’s rarer to respond to a complaint of a homeless camp and arrest a camper, Shaffer said.
“Our job is to enforce the law,” he said, “but it’s not illegal to be homeless.”
Sometimes arrests are unavoidable. Clinton responds to a complaint from a property owner who has been told people are illegally camped at his vacant two-story commercial building about a block off Cumberland Avenue, on the University of Tennessee campus. Tucked into a landing at the top of a stairwell, he finds a couple, David Wolfenbarger and Terri Marley, who have made a sleeping pallet out of couch cushions. Marley is a few weeks pregnant. They’ve avoided the shelters, they tell Clinton, because they wouldn’t be able to stay together.
“You guys can’t stay here,” he said, handing them a card with local resources. And it would have ended there — with Clinton telling them to move on — had he not discovered Wolfenbarger had an outstanding warrant in Hawkins County, where he was charged in July with theft, identity theft and having a stolen credit card.
“Unless they want to come pick you up, I’m not going to take you in,” Clinton told Wolfenbarger. But they did, so after a cordial exchange Clinton took Wolfenbarger to Knox County’s detention center to wait for Hawkins County deputies, telling a sobbing Marley, left in the Lake Avenue parking lot, “If you need to stay here a little longer, you can.”
CAC estimates there are 80 homeless camps around the county. Clinton is focused on downtown and the areas just around it, where people dispersed into a smattering of small campsites after May, when the city razed the largest area campsite, several acres along both sides of Second Creek, evicting more than 40 people.
Part of Clinton’s job is to keep them moving.
“If we can stay on top of it, it prevents them from setting up these massive tent cities … which are visible to the public and also leads to crime,” Clinton said. At the Second Creek campsite in 2013, three homeless residents murdered three others, but police also regularly responded to rape and assault reports there.
“It’s also a safety issue, with their living concentrated at (one large) site, so we don’t want them setting up shop,” he said. Crews in May hauled off 160 tons of trash from the Second Creek camp, where officials said campers polluted Second Creek with garbage and fecal matter, and exposed themselves to toxic chemicals by digging for scrap metal on contaminated property formerly used by PSC Metals.
Even where property owners are ambivalent, camps are discouraged, police said. Secluded camps foster illegal activity, Shaffer said; visible camps generate complaints to the city.
“I’m sympathetic to their situation, but no matter where they go, they’re on someone else’s property,” Shaffer said. “If they’re trespassing, we come and move them.”
Later that afternoon, Clinton comes upon a regular he knows only as “Tumbleweed,” one shoe off, lying on flattened cardboard boxes in a neatly landscaped area near the Sansom Sports Complex.
“Sit up,” Clinton tells the man, whose clothes and skin are covered with dirt. “Why are you laying out here in the rain?”
The man indicates a fractured vertebrae has left him immobile and urges Clinton to move along. “I can’t just leave you alone,” Clinton said. “I’m not taking you to jail, either.” He asked Tumbleweed if he’ll agree to go to a hospital, and leaves only after the ambulance arrives. But he expects to see him again in a few days, on the street.
Clinton does think some of the tactics are working, that some homeless are using the services, getting housing, getting treatment for addiction.
“We don’t have the large camps we used to have, and we’re not receiving a large number of complaints from new areas of town,” which would indicate they’d just moved outward, he said. “If they’re not going” to KARM or other shelters, he said, “they’re hiding better.”
Clinton hopes his notebook log will help him identify patterns, openings for intervention.
“Nobody has the perfect answer,” Shaffer said. “We sit in meeting after meeting after meeting … talking about how to reduce the number of people out there.”
* * * * * * * * * *
Knoxville’s Community Development Corp. oversees the city’s public housing units. Each has a waiting list; individuals apply for the site where they want to live, and if vacancies become available, potential tenants are reviewed on a case-by-case basis, with first preference going to people displaced from their homes through no fault of their own, then people who are homeless, then people with disabilities.
Right now, all are full, with long waiting lists, said KCDC Housing Director Debbie Taylor-Allen.
Individuals can also apply for “Section 8” through KCDC, although that doesn’t guarantee housing, either.
Under Section 8 of the Housing Act of 1937, the federal government helps pay rent to private landlords on behalf of low-income renters. Most use the “tenant-based” Housing Choice Voucher program; tenants can choose where they live, as long it meets the government’s definition of affordable housing of at least minimum quality.
But Section 8 also includes several “project-based” rental assistance programs, under which a landlord reserves some or all of the units in a building for low-income tenants in return for a federal government guarantee to make up the difference between the tenant’s contribution and the rent in the owner’s contract with the government. Tenants who leave subsidized projects lose their vouchers.
KCDC’s project-based Section 8 program took a blow in March when two landlords, responsible for a combined 300 units in five complexes, announced they were dropping out. Both were on the last year of a 15-year tax credit; once that expires, Taylor-Allen said, they can opt to rent on the open market.
“It’s really hurt us bad; it’s hurt our tenants,” said Taylor-Allen. “It’s been very hard for them to find other units.”
Tenants in the complexes — Prestwick Ridge, near Sutherland Avenue, and Meadowbrook, off Pleasant Ridge Road — could opt to stay in their apartments, but with the increased rent, most couldn’t afford to, she said. They were getting notices as their leases expired.
“The market is very tight right now,” she said. “It’s very hard, especially for the low-income families, to find somewhere to move right now. … We’ve got a lot of people out there looking for housing right now. They can apply, and I can give them a voucher, but if they can’t find a unit …”
She estimates only 50 of every 100 families to whom she issues vouchers find affordable housing, she said.
KCDC is continuously trying to recruit new landlords to the Section 8 program. One incentive is the Knoxville Extreme Energy Makeover program. Eligible homes get energy-saving upgrades at no cost to the homeowner — but if the homeowner is a landlord, he or she must accept Section 8 vouchers. So far, KEEM has upgraded 90 units, all of which agreed to have Section 8 tenants in exchange.
At a city-sponsored “landlord summit” last month, KDCD acquired five new landlords, Taylor-Allen said.
“But there are currently over 300 people looking for units, so we are always in need of more landlords,” she said.
Catholic Charities’ Samaritan Place
Emergency shelter, transitional housing and 15 supportive housing units for people 60 and older, with case management/services. 865-524-9896; www.ccetn.org
Coordinates meals, mentoring, outreach services through local churches. 865-251-1591; www.compassioncoalition.org
Family Promise of Knoxville
Shelter/support services to families with children; can shelter two-parent family, single father with young children, mother with boys older than 12 together in host church. 865-584-2822; www.familypromise.org
Helen Ross McNabb Center
Emergency shelter, transitional housing, permanent supportive housing, case management/mental health services. 1-800-255-9711; www.mcnabbcenter.org
Knox Area Rescue Ministries
Shelter, meals, supportive services, transitional housing. 865-673-6540; www.karm.org
Knoxville’s Community Development Corporation
Housing and redevelopment agency; manages public housing, rental units; administers Section 8 housing programs. 865-403-1100; www.kcdc.org
Knoxville-Knox County Community Action Committee
Services including retaining or regaining permanent housing; street homeless outreach; case management; senior services; numerous other services. 865-546-3500; www.knoxcac.org
Knoxville Leadership Foundation’s Flenniken Landing
Supportive housing units for chronically homeless; support services/case management. 865-577-1980; www.klf.org
Knox County Veterans Services
Assists veterans in filing applications for VA benefits, including VASH (Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing). 865-215-5645; www.knoxcounty.org/veterans
Services, permanent supportive housing for people with HIV/AIDS and those dually diagnosed with mental illness and substance abuse. 865-525-1540; www.positivelyliving.org
Three residential programs, transitional housing, case management/support services, emergency assistance. 865-525-9401; salvationarmytennessee.org/knoxville.
Tennessee Valley Coalition for the Homeless
Support services for veterans; permanent supportive housing; emergency services/case management. 865-859-0749; www.tvchomeless.org
Volunteer Ministry Center
Case management, meals, some vision/dental/prescription services, permanent supportive housing through Minvilla Manor, other resources. 865-524-3926; www.vmcinc.org
Volunteers of America
Case management/support services to homeless or low-income veterans. 865-524-3926; www.voamid.org/hvrpknoxville
Transitional housing/services for single women. 865-523-6126; www.ywcaknox.com