Thursday, November 19, 2009

the homeless: another downtowner's perspective

I wrote a comment on the Pol's latest dissertation, but it was so long I decided to make it a full fledged post. I want to preface this by saying I respect what The Pol is saying. I've known him for quite some time and I know he's a feather ruffler. He wants people to think, and he does a pretty dang good job at it.

I wanted to share my perspective on the issue as someone who lives near downtown and has interacted with a lot of homeless people since I've lived in Knoxville.

Call me a simpleton, but I've always thought the issue of homelessness runs a lot deeper than what government will do for the homeless. I think it's easy for downtowners to have a holier-than-thou attitude concerning the matter. The recent controversy about the County Commission's decision has made me realize that downtowners feel like we are bearing the brunt of this problem and are resentful about people who don't want to share the load. But if you are a downtowner, may I pose the question: How are you physically helping the problem aside from complaining about it or blaming others? I know I have to ask myself this a lot.

Homelessness has been a problem in Knoxville far longer than I've lived here, and I think downtowners can be just as negligent about this issue as people out West. There are probably just as many North Knoxvillians who want to transplant the homeless shelters from Broadway and Magnolia to a more desirable location- out of sight.

No matter where there is talk of building more shelters or homeless housing, nearby residents will complain. All this is to say, as downtowners we can't make a sweeping claim that we accept the homeless out of any love or care. Most downtowners accept homeless people just because we have no other choice.

I think the decision to refuse homeless housing out West reflects the opinions of most of Knoxville, not just people out West. Yes, as downtowners, we've learned to be cordial to the homeless when they panhandle us on our way to work, but that's not enough. Our cordiality isn't pulling anyone out of their hopeless state.

The homeless problem is not just where are we going to put these people. The problem is how, as citizens of Knoxville, are we going to love and care for the homeless to help give them the best life possible, whether they are grateful or not, whether they change or not. Then we change the question of "What are we going to do with them?" to "How is MY thinking and perspective wrong regarding the homeless? What can I do to help?"

I am a firm believer that you don't have to join the Peace Corps to help people in need. You don't need to move to a leper colony to help people the way Mother Teresa did. Knoxville has its work cut out for it. I personally don't think anyone should be allowed to make decisions on the homeless until they've hung out outside of Knox Area Rescue Ministry, but what is my opinion worth... I'm not in politics.


The Modern Gal said...

B, thank you for writing this. You've put into words what I've struggled to.

The thing that gets me the most in the arguments about homelessness is the lack of "do unto others ..." feeling. You're right, it shouldn't matter whether they're grateful. I truly believe that it is our responsibility to care for our fellow man, and that includes people who don't care. Unfortunately, from what I've witnessed in many arguments over this topic, lots of people only want to help people who want to help themselves. Or are "newly homeless." Or are grateful.

If you've never served a meal to or spent some time with someone less fortunate than you, I'd recommend it. You see a lot more gratitude than you might expect. And who knows, you might find someone among the people who are ungrateful who begin to have a different attitude.

benjamin said...

nice post B. your point was definitely proven by the fierce opposition to the minvilla manor in the old fifth avenue motel over the past couple of years. there's already homeless people living all over the street around there - it seems weird that people would resist housing being built there.

but it did finally receive full funding, right? anybody have updated news on that?

meg w. said...

I am actually somewhat of a different opinion. When I lived in West Knoxville I was so empathetic towards the homeless and would always do "what I could". I served meals, gave change... you know the drill. But when I moved to Fourth and Gill and worked downtown, over the years my patience grew quite thin.

Time after time I would try to help the same people out and time after time nothing changed. One man in particular was given a job, an apartment and a bike to try to get on his feet and he ended up in jail not even a couple of weeks later. I found myself really angry and even cold towards the homeless population and I know that isn't right either.

Helping the homeless problem is going to take much much more than simply serving them a meal or giving them a place to stay. I want to believe that the rehabilitation can work but I don't know. I don't have the answers but I know, like everyone else that might be too scared to admit it, that I want it to go away. And yes, I feel bad for saying that.

benjamin said...

Show me someone who has the strength to battle disease and poverty, while realizing that these problems will never go away, and I'll show you someone who has it all figured out.

Chris T said...

Solution: Feed the homeless to the homeless. Everyone wins!

ck said...

I guess I have to ask myself- was my outrage this week because of my sympathy for the homeless or because I don't like West Knoxville? Probably more of the latter than I'd like to admit.

Mike D. said...

Thoughtful posts and comments on this issue. The housing at Minvilla and the proposed site out west are "supportive housing," meaning it comes with professional case management. The Volunteer Ministry Center has been providing this service over the past couple of years, placing chronically homeless folks into existing housing wherever it is available and then providing ongoing case management. They're placing something on the order of 70 to 80 people per year this way. They're also seeing that a year after folks are placed, something like 90% are still there.

Housing plus case management works. I'm just guessing, but I bet Meg's negative experince reflected in her comments here resulted from the application of only half of that formula. Sometimes a second chance is all that's needed, but for chronically homeless folks, there are often enough underlying issues that need to be addressed on an ongoing basis that case management has to be part of the deal.

benjamin said...

So, I know this is in Nashville (where I live now), but I found this man's blog very interesting. He has been "chronically homeless" since 1982. Check it out. Its important to get this kind of perspective when talking about this issue.

The Modern Gal said...

Ben, thanks for that link. That's always the perspective that is missing or gets lost in this whole argument.

Lisa said...

Mike D. you are a wise man. The vast majority of homeless people need help dealing with mental problems. If they could function on their own, they would.

Anonymous said...

That was exactly part of the debate about the Debusk site being a poor location. Those individuals that would need ongoing help with mental issues, etc. would be isolated. There is no bus line. No sidewalks for them to safely walk anywhere to shop or get medications.

Andrea said...


Thank you for that link. That is a great resource.

I am a new resident of downtown Knoxville and I'm only learning now about the politics and the homeless issue. I come from a small town where we don't have even a quarter of the problem that Knoxville has. This whole homeless debate has been absolutely fascinating to me. I appreciate reading the comments and the differing viewpoints for both sides of the issue.

Anonymous said...

The problem is not the attitude of the "West Knoxville" people. The problem is that in order to revitalize the downtown area, the homeless situation has to be addressed. You cannot have luxury lofts with luxury price tags and expect those tenants to come face to face with the homeless every day. It's just not going to work. Wake up people. The best things that Knoxville has to offer are the gorgeous scenery and landscapes of East Tennessee. When I lived in Knoxville, one of my friends bought a house in the 4th and Gill area for the same price I paid for my home in FOx Den...and for what?! To put up with crackies at the Kroger and get assaulted at the Pizza Hut on Broadway. Wake up. If you want to live the city life, move to a real city instead of pretending in North Knoxville.

Anonymous said...

i would encourage everyone to open this week's Metro Pulse (with Haslam on the cover) and turn to page 21 and read the side bar. kudos to Ms. Weatherstone.

The Pol said...

Thanks Anon, just read that bit. It really is sad that when the opportunity to discuss was given people chose to ignore those being helped and only shout their prejudices.

Chuskey said...

I had commented on the same subject over on Knoxify, thought I'd do a little copy and paste over here..."I have some per­sonal expe­ri­ence with the Minvilla Manor Project and with feed­ing some of K-Town’s home­less. Let me just say, regard­less of the inten­tions, the Minvilla Manor project has been a huge screwed up mess from the get-go. From the clear­ing out and fenc­ing up of the 5th Ave Hotel, to the actual design and con­struc­tion, noth­ing went the way it was sup­posed too. If they are plan­ning some­thing sim­i­lar in West Knoxville, I hope they learn from their mis­takes. As for the min­istries that try to help the home­less, I can only speak of the one I have some first hand knowl­edge off, but St. Demetri­ous the tiny lit­tle church in Mechan­icsville (in front of Food City on Mid­dle­brook) tries to hand out sack lunches or hot food at least 3 days a week. They have only a few work­ers, but they do what they can. Some nights peo­ple are already lined around the build­ing by the time the work­ers get there to open up. I have taken a group of teenagers over, to serve soup a cou­ple times. As was men­tioned above allot of the folks do have some hand­i­caps whether mental/physical or in as in allot of cases, both. Most of the folks we fed were friendly and very thank­ful for some­one tak­ing the time to help. I learned one thing from hear­ing some of their stories…most of us are only one bad month, or even a cou­ple bad weeks from being in the same spot. One man, told us the story of how he was a car­pen­ter, had a good job, lov­ing fam­ily. His daugh­ters where killed in an acci­dent. He turned to drink­ing to ease the pain, and within months he lost his job, wife and home. It’s a scary thought, espe­cially with today’s econ­omy. Are these 10 years plans the answer? Maybe, but more than likely, prob­a­bly not. What is the answer? I wish I knew, but until some­one fig­ures it out all I can say is, God Bless those with a heart to help. And by that, I mean the ones who really feel the need, to help their fel­low man, not just the ones who want to puff out their chest and say, “look at me! I’m helpin!!” The ones who help in silence, never ask­ing to be rec­og­nized or praised, they just do it because it’s what should be done, but most of us (myself included) don’t have the patience or the will power to deal with some­thing, that in all hon­esty, we’d rather just not think about. Of course it’s those type of folks that makes this such a great town in the first place, which maybe why so many home­less end up here, it’s kind of a vicious cycle I sup­pose, but what do I know, I’m just a dude, playin a dude, dis­guised as another dude…"

Mike D. said...

A couple thoughts... Feeding the homeless is great. Housing the homeless is better. The poor may 'always be with us,' but who says they have to be homeless?

Second, there is a very common misconception about Knoxville being a unique attraction for the homeless. I have had the opportunity on many occasions to interact with and learn from individuals working on the issue of homelessness across the country. I always use those occasions to ask them if their town or city is locally perceived as a 'mecca' for the homeless. Every last one of them has responded in the affirmative. It's also important, for perspective, to remember that when a local TV crew pulls up in front of KARM and interviews some folks, it shouldn't be surprising for them to meet someone who heard from somewhere that they should come to Knoxville to get help. It's also important to consider that there are TV crews in Denver, Dallas, Miami, Poughkeepsie and Scranton who are doing similar interviews with folks who are reporting that they heard somewhere that they should go to Denver, Dallas, Miami, Poughkeepsie or Scranton. Since each TV crew is only broadcasting locally, it reinforces the local perception of a homeless 'mecca.'

The truth is, wherever you are, there is a good percentage of the homeless population that was not born in that place. Interestingly, when you think about it, wherever you are, there is also a significant percentage of the housed population that was not born in that place. According to Dr. Roger Nooe's research, there is about a 10% greater incidence of 'not being from here' among the homeless population than among the rest of the population. Further research by the UT College of Social Work has shown that when you start asking for last permanent address rather than place of birth, the vast majority of the homeless in Knoxville come from here or from the nine surrounding counties.

When some people (no one on this board so far...) start advocating that we should help 'our own' folks, but send others back to where they came from, I have to wonder about the logistics of it. Should you really require having a Knox County birth certificate to receive help here? If that's too strict a threshold, then where do you draw the line? Also, isn't it implicit in the objective to only help 'our own,' that we would have to welcome back those who started out here but are now homeless in some other city? Doesn't that just become an overly complicated and impractical swap?

The real deal is that the Ten Year Plan's objective is to help those who really want to get off the streets and who will make a commitment to work with a case manager to address the issues underlying their homelessness. There is an expectation of some level of accountability in order to receive housing and help. Honestly, that can't be too inviting for too long for anyone who would think about coming here for some sort of a free ride.

benjamin said...

interesting article on the topic of homelessness:

benjamin said...

and if you don't want to read that article, just go here:

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