Knoxville Police Sgt. Amanda Bunch visits meetings of the Fountain City Business and Professional Association monthly, and these past few months she’s tackled a surprising topic: homelessness.
It may or may not surprise you that Knoxville’s homeless population isn’t as concentrated as you may think, especially during warm weather. The missions near downtown have “white flag” days in the winter, during which they open overflow capacity. Homeless people who camp in the suburbs in spring and summer don’t want to go to the missions, though.
“If they can stay away from there, they will,” said Bunch. “But they stay pretty hidden. To be honest, except for some begging for money, they don’t cause a lot of problems.”
And while the problem is more obvious if you live or work in Old North Knoxville or near the mission district, homeless people and their camps are all over Knoxville, including suburbs like Fountain City.
Recently, Knoxville Police addressed a camp located behind Fountain City Skate Park, and there are more out there. Bunch said KPD doesn’t go hunting for homeless camps. They base their response on citizen complaints. A special task force cleans up about one camp per week, but they don’t just suddenly show up and kick people out. They watch the camp for a few days first. The goal, said Bunch, is to find the people who live there and offer them help.
“We talk to them and offer them services, including treatment for mental health and substance abuse,” she said. “Our main goal isn’t to just displace people. It’s more about getting them a permanent residence.”
Bunch said mental health and substance abuse problems are the reason many of the individuals remain homeless.
“Some are just down on their luck, but typically those seek out the resources anyway,” she said.
So, what can you do to address homelessness in your community? Bunch asked that people call KPD if they suspect a homeless camp is near them or if an individual is panhandling or causing problems.
“Please report it,” she said. “We have services we can offer them to get them off the street. It’s not that you’re just being mean. If you feel weird about something, I’d rather you call and it turn out to be nothing.”
Also, even though it’s hard to say no, Bunch asked that people stop giving panhandlers money, and that businesses stop giving them free food.
“Things like that end up keeping them here instead of seeking out the true resources we can offer them,” Bunch said. “Unfortunately, that is what keeps them where they are, and it is so hard to say no. As much as it hurts, stop allowing for that to happen.
“My goal is to get them into permanent housing. That helps everybody and cleans up our community, too.”