At least 1 percent of the American population will be homeless sometime within the next year.
Of the 7,770 homeless people in Knox County, 3,905 are chronically homeless: 3 percent with a chronic illness, 13 percent with alcohol or drug abuse issues, 34 percent with mental health issues and the other 50 percent with varying disabling features. In October 2005, Knoxville's Ten Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness was created to combat this problem.
Commissioned by former Mayor Bill Haslam and Knox County Mayor Mike Ragsdale, a task force comprised of 15 community leaders sought to implement a nine-step program to end chronic homelessness in Knoxville in 10 years. In recent years, the plan has seen little progress, but, under the supervision of Mayor Rogero, commitment has been renewed.
While homelessness itself can never be "cured," chronic homelessness is a specific form in which the individual harbors a debilitating condition or substance abuse issue and has been living that way continuously for a year or more or undergone four occurrences of homelessness in the last three years.
In 2012, homelessness in Knox County dropped 14 percent, but the number of persons served in homeless shelters rose by 4 percent.
Mike Dunthorn, member of the original task force that created the first "Ten Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness," and current project manager for the City of Knoxville's Office on Homelessness, attributes the stagnation to controversy within the community.
"So the biggest hurdle in overcoming the adversity that arose around the old plan has been effectively communicating with the general public about the issue," Dunthorn said. "And to understand, address and allay fears, in order to build public support around coordinated efforts to more-effectively address homelessness."
These steps included:
1. Move people into housing first
2. Stop discharging people into homelessness
3. Increase coordination and effectiveness of service
4. Increase economic opportunities
5. Implement new data collection methods
6. Develop permanent solutions
7. Strengthen partnerships with faith-based organizations
8. Recognize homelessness as a community challenge
9. Prevent homelessness
Due to community backlash and the lack of available funding, the graduated system repeatedly failed. Task members attribute the failure to the plan's most crucial element: housing.
Cities across the country have demonstrated success with similar housing programs, boasting a retention rate of 90 percent and reducing the chronically homeless population by 18 percent since 2007.
Before community members could protest, two housing units were built in the Knoxville area. Minvilla Manor and Flenniken Landing, both housing about 50 residents, have exceeded national retention rates among the homeless.
"The community also has to support it," said Elizabeth Hagler, a graduate assistant at the Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. "Knoxville citizens would rather see downtown revitalized and the homeless relocated rather than dilapidated buildings downtown renovated and reformed into permanent supportive housing."
Under current Mayor Madeline Rogero, the project has taken on new life. Last week, a homeless leadership council was formed to represent those the community hopes to aid.
A community group, Compassion Knoxville, has resolved to quell concerns that crippled the original plan. Through panels and meetings across the Knoxville area, Compassion Knoxville plans to increase dialogue and awareness about the new plan.
Other Knoxville area charity organizations are also joining the fight. Eddie Young, a figurehead in the plan to end chronic homelessness, directs one such organization, Redeeming Hope Ministries.
"We advocate for change in our community to those who need it and will work to push change forward," Young said. "We want people to appreciate them as human beings and as people who have merely had struggles and need hope. We have to break the barriers of this negative stereotype."
Although Knoxville's plan is a work in progress, UT students are encouraged to contribute effort in the meantime.
"It's an eye-opening experience when you work with the homeless," said Kaitlyn Williams, a sophomore in kinesiology, "It's important to reach out into the community that our campus is a part of and don't stay secluded in our bubble. Whether a person helps by providing a meal, buying a newspaper or just stops to have a conversation — each part makes our community grow as a whole and benefits someone in some way."
To find more information, visit www.cityofknoxville.org/boards/homeless.asp.