By Mike Steely
The image you may have of the homeless population in Knoxville may not be accurate according to the information available from the Mayor’s Roundtable on Homelessness. The group, created and appointed by Mayor Madeline Rogero, met for its quarterly session last week and heard reports from the Knoxville Homeless Management Information System, Knoxville Police Department and other Knoxville-Knox County Homeless Coalition agencies including CAC’s Homeward Bound program.
Highlighting the meeting was an update from Lisa Higginbotham of the Homeless Management Information System, who gave a summary of interviews with 249 homeless individuals. The city and county have an estimated 9,339 people who accessed homeless services from 18 partnering agencies, a slight increase of 1% from 2014.
Higginbotham told The Focus Tuesday that she was surprised that about 64% of those interviewed reported mental health issues. Most of the homeless are white, male and between the ages of 31 to 60 years old. About 47% reported chronic health problems, 46% reported being hospitalized while homeless, and 54% said they have no health insurance.
“There’s a lot of chronic health issues,” Higginbotham said.
Eleven percent of those interviewed were military veterans. More than 70% report their last permanent address as Knox County or one of the surrounding counties.
The reasons for homelessness might be surprising. Higginbotham said the main reasons are economic issues including the loss of a job and the lack of affordable housing. Those homeless who are working only earn an average income of $8,000 a year.
Misty Goodwin, with the Homeward Bound program of the CAC, told The Focus that there’s a slight increase in the survey of people 61 years and older, which could be caused by more data being reported and the fact that the word is on the street about available services.
She said that many of the elderly who draw Social Security have the money deposited directly into their bank accounts, mailed to their post office box, or use KARM as their address. Some 70% of those homeless interviewed used overnight housing at KARM or other agencies.
Goodwin voiced concern for the lack of affordable housing and noted that even those homeless working minimum wage jobs don’t make a living wage and can’t afford housing. Over the past year some 1,951 individuals were placed in positive housing, an increase of 2% over 2014.
The Knoxville Police Department’s Thomas Clinton reported to the coalition on efforts to help the homeless in various outdoor camps around the area. He said the department’s efforts are combined with a continual outreach to those campers. Praised for the department’s efforts by those members of the coalition Officer Clinton said, “We’ve mapped out those camps and when we enter the camps we see what kind of services are needed and help to get them relocated.”
He said he is developing a list of the homeless at the camps and stressed that the city’s efforts to clean out the camps is “not to be mean” but to provide information on local services available.
Officer Clinton said that there have been 129 camps located and the few arrests made at the camps involve outstanding warrants and two people charged with trespassing.
“We try to visit these camps once a week,” he said.
Goodwin told The Focus that her department also has two individuals who visit the camps and offer information on services.
Michael Dunthorn, coordinator of city’s Office of Homelessness, said the state is preparing to adopt a Homeless Plan and said it will probably be similar to the city’s plans. He called a state policy “a long time coming.”
He also said that affordable housing has had some success but needs to be the key objective.
Dunthorn added that the Salvation Army has reallocated $135,000 toward permanent housing for 24 units as part of their Boot Strap Program. He said people can’t make it on minimum wage and it is “finally time to talk about housing.”
The Knoxville-Knox County Homeless Coalition partners also include Angelic Ministries, Knox County Schools, Volunteer Ministry Center, Catholic Charities of East Tennessee, Cherokee Health, Compassion Coalition, Family Promise of Knoxville, First Baptist Church, Highway and Byways Ministries, KCDC, Southeast Housing Foundation, Knox Leadership Foundation, Knox County Public Libraries, Community Development and Health Department, Legal Aid of East Tennessee, Lost Sheep Ministries, Hell Ross McNabb Center, Veteran’s Administration, Mental Health Association, Parkridge Harbor, Public Defenders Office, Ridgeview, Tn. Housing Development Association, Water Angels, Volunteer of America, YWCA and Connect Ministries.
Information on the survey of homeless can be found at www.KnoxHMIS.org. If you’d like to volunteer, you can contact Higginbotham at firstname.lastname@example.org.