Knoxville’s Calcutta

Nick Della VolpeFeature, Inside 640

Riding down lower Broadway in Knoxville can transport you to a byway slum in India. The only things missing are the cardboard and tin shacks of those foreign inhabitants. The same dismal air hovers over the dozens and dozens of homeless people, sitting or lying down on sidewalks and gathering around trash heaps surrounding their tent city behind an iron gate. The more ambulatory denizens carry their life belongings in make-shift sacks slung over their shoulder. Others wait in KARM’s more-sheltered courtyard.

As you walk down the block, stepping around people lying on mats and rags, some of them spaced-out on last night’s drugs or booze, others just waiting around for the free chow line to open, you wonder how these individuals have sunken so low. The subconscious feeling you work to control, is that of one who has stepped into a movie scene set in an abandoned shopping mall, where zombies lurk in the corners, only swarm out to eat passersby.

Perhaps that is just the unschooled surprise of being immersed in the unfamiliar. But little that is inspirational meets the eye. Mental illness, substance abuse and broken homes account for many of those homeless present. I’m too ignorant to know why others appear to voluntarily adopt this nomadic lifestyle.

Knoxville police and service cleanup workers will tell you of the tons of trash that accumulate there, and the environment of crime and predation that exists. Like that quenching pond you see in the Serengeti nature shows, there is always a lion or tiger lurking in the sawgrass waiting for an unguarded weakling who has just gotten their social security check or their prescription filled by a clinic. Merchants on lower Broadway will tell you they arrive many mornings only to have to clean up spent needles, condoms, and human feces or urine in doorways and alleys. Sharks and prostitutes swarm to coves filled with bait fishes.

I ask you: What have we done in the name of charity? Congregating too many broken people in one place breeds its own nightmare. Churches and benefactors send food and clothing to the care service organizations that surround the several-block area. Gifts are not distributed and these folks are not sheltered in the church’s own backyards but are delivered over to the mission district. This conscience salve breeds a swamp … mosquitos swarming over a stagnant pond in summer. There has to be a better way.

Where are the well-intended do-gooders, like the ACLU of the sixties and seventies, now as the fruits of their lawsuits which closed the likes of Lakeshore and other places that housed and treated the mentally ill in campus-like settings? Was it really “unfair” to “restrain” them in a caring environment with professionally-trained workers?

I also wonder how Knoxville can spend millions to improve the downtown, only to tear part of it down by fostering a mission district there? Maybe it’s time to return to some form of campus-type treatment center, perhaps a 20-acre farm with sunshine and gardens and daily chores and training to re-engage folks fallen on hard times.

Doing the same thing over and over again is its own form of insanity.

Nick Della Volpe is an attorney and former member of Knoxville City Council.

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