The more Zan Schriver said about how to solve the homeless problem in Knoxville and the longer his words rattled around in my head, the more sense it made to me. It is a seemingly simple solution the Volunteer Ministry Center (VMC) posits: Help the homeless find homes, affordable homes, and that will lead to the dominoes falling into place to keep them off the streets.
Sounds easy. It isn’t. But the VMC, which has been in business here for 32 years, clearly has a plan, preaching their idea with these catchphrases: “Ending and Preventing Homelessness” and “Opening Doors for a Better Tomorrow.”
Schriver is the development and digital media manager at the VMC and last week spoke to the Rotary Club of Farragut about the center, its focus and the homeless issue here. As he began, he made these key points:
- Homelessness is not a condition but an experience.
- “Housing first” is VMC’s method; that will help solve other problems.
- Permanent supported housing with case managers works.
“We are not an emergency shelter like KARM or some others,” he explained. “We want to see long-term results.” He said they deal with only about a fourth of the requests for service they receive.
“The No. 1 problem for the homeless here is a lack of affordable housing,” Schriver explained. “It’s also a myth that people from other cities and states come here because of our services. We are serving our own homeless.” He agreed that a small minority of the homeless comes in from other locations, but recent studies clearly show the homeless are locals.
No doubt he’s right about a lack of affordable housing here, but part of the issue is what one Rotarian asked: “How do you define affordable housing?” His answer was along the lines of apartments or homes priced so someone can use what money they have to invest in a home and buy in to this, plus making use of case managers to help people transition into supported housing.
Common sense and experience also bring into play the NIMBY problem: “Not in My Back Yard.” Many neighborhoods do not want homeless housing in or near their neighborhoods. It has been that way for a very long time.
Schriver gave us a rundown on the center’s current facilities:
- VMC’s Bush Family Refuge has 545 households with approximately 3,000 residents. They receive assistance for utilities and rent, plus clothing and transportation.
- The Resource Center has 63 people in residences and has assisted more than 1,030 since 2007; 93 percent maintain their housing for a year or longer.
- The Minvillas is the old 5th Avenue Hotel, and its 57 apartments have 65 residents; many of those have some type of a disability.
Until very recently, many homeless people camped “Under the Bridge” in downtown Knoxville. The city has now converted that space into a day-camp facility, with tables and restrooms. That move has pushed many of the homeless away from downtown and into North and South Knoxville, he said. “The various homeless camps around town is a complex issue,” he said.
Schriver also discussed what happened at last week’s Knoxville City Council meeting when the council agreed, on first reading, to give the VMC $245,000 to help fund a “low-barrier” night shelter for the homeless in what used to be the Salvation Army’s Thrift Store on Broadway. It will have 40 to 45 beds.
The shelter, named The Foyer because it will usher people off the street and into a home, is intended to have few limitations on who can use it, thus the “low-barrier” designation. It will serve individuals who are not able or willing to access existing emergency-shelter options, Schriver said. Individuals using the space will need a referral form from an outreach worker to spend the night because VMC doesn’t intend to compete with other shelter facilities in the area.
The money will be used to renovate and furnish the building. If it gets final approval, it is scheduled to open in August 2019. The council will have to approve the funding a second time, at the March 26 meeting, for the money to be secured.
To learn more about the center, you can visit their website. Their phone number is 865-524-3926.
Homelessness is a community-wide problem that begs for a community-wide approach. Maybe VMC’s supported housing solution is the correct approach. They’re working hard on this, and we need to support them and the other organizations working to do the same. This problem is not going to disappear on its own.
If you’re interested in exploring membership in Farragut Rotary, drop me an email or call (865) 659-3562. We meet at 12:15 p.m. each Wednesday at Fox Den Country Club.