By Mike Steely
The Knoxville Focus has been asking candidates for office to respond to a series of questions. Seat C, currently held by Vice Mayor and Councilman Finbarr Saunders, has five candidates hoping to become one of the top two that will go on to the general election in November. Here’s one of the questions we asked:
Make a statement about the homeless and the city’s efforts beneath the Broadway Bridge.
From 1999-2000, I was shelter manager at Volunteer Ministry Center. I worked for Ginny Weatherstone. I’m the only at-Large Seat C candidate, who can opine with any authority or experience. There will always be homelessness. Even more now that Knoxville is growing. It comes with the territory. The question is, “Are we doing the best we can to help people find housing?” If one has housing, they are no longer homeless. Volunteer Ministry Center has a program that has helped over 1000 individuals find housing. That’s the end. The beginning is willing participants to successfully complete the programs to enable them to secure housing and keep it. My overall statement is to support the agencies with a proven track record. There are a finite amount of tax dollars to go towards these efforts. Others must step up!
Homelessness and poverty will never be solved by throwing money at it. These people need our care and understanding. No one wants to be homeless or in poverty, but too many times there are mental issues or addiction involved. We need to take care of those that cannot take care of themselves and those that are able to recover we need to assist them to help themselves.
Since declaring my intention to run for City Council, it has been increasingly difficult to drive along Broadway and see the homeless situation under the bridge. I know that I will be tasked with addressing this enormous problem which is not easily fixed. While the current administration’s decision to create a day-space may have improved the safety of the homeless individuals living under the bridge, it was very disruptive to the North and South Knoxville neighborhoods. I believe more research and engagement of grassroots groups would have predicted this result. We need to continue a multi-faceted approach to addressing the homeless issue which includes partnerships with mental health facilities, transitional housing, as well as our continued effort to stop drug addiction. Organizations such as Volunteer Ministry Center, KARM, YWCA, and the Salvation Army understand the problem more than anyone. They should be engaged in crafting any initiative to help address this problem as we work to create opportunity for these individuals to regain purpose and direction in their lives.
A former director of what was then called Knoxville Union Rescue Mission had a vision to help the homeless by purchasing a farm where they could raise their own food and have space to run small cottage businesses to earn a living. Alas he passed away and no one picked up the idea. The city could look into such a use for blighted properties. Those with health and drug issues need to be in hospitals and treatment centers. The boarding house concept can help. But aren’t we treating symptoms and not the cause? High paying jobs are needed and that requires pro free enterprise advocates for mayor and city council.
It is sadly clear that the city’s efforts beneath the Broadway Bridge were aimed at “cleaning up” the area rather than addressing the needs of our homeless population. The decision to fund a low barrier shelter next to the day space is a welcome initiative but it is unfortunate that the decision to clear out the space beneath the bridge and disperse those living there came before the city committed to investing in a low barrier option for the homeless who have been turned away from other service providers. And of course the expulsion of the homeless from beneath the Broadway Bridge has followed a series of evictions and cleans ups of homeless camps that have been popping up around the city for years. Since the city opened the day space, those without housing have found shelter in all corners of our city, causing more residents to become aware of the crisis at hand. Housing is a human right and our city’s budget should reflect the urgency of our housing crisis by not only prioritizing the development of affordable, supportive, transitional housing and emergency shelters when needed.