Fifty people crammed into three animal-infested houses on 17th street.
This image introduced Eddie Young to the Knoxville homeless community.
"Right across from the church on 17th Street, there were three houses that were carved up into number of living quarters, apartments," Young said. "That's not even a good word for them. They were just awful. Women who have no porcelain in their bathrooms, just a hole in the floor that led directly to the sewers. It wasn't unusual for animals like possums, roaches and raccoons to find their way in."
Upon arriving in Knoxville to serve as the pastor of holistics at Redeemer Church, Young was struck by the dire needs of the city's homeless population. Out of this squalor, Redeeming Hope Ministries was born, founded by Young in 2009. Created to care for Knoxville's marginalized homeless community, physically and emotionally, RHM oversees The Amplifier, Food in the Fort as well as many smaller programs.
"I began working with these folks in a genuine friendship," Young said. "No one was our client, no one was the object of our ministry. We were just working with them in the context of genuine relationships."
After a drug bust scattered the residents of 17th Street, Young's mission transformed. A survivor of 15 years of drug addiction, Young's experiences with "holistic transformation" informed his approach to aid, emphasizing friendship rather than charity.
"Our work really followed those friends of ours into the dispersion," Young said. "And we changed our approach to addressing the holistic concerns of the marginalized and homeless of urban Knoxville at large."
Located in the basement of Redeemer Church of Knoxville, the organization strives to not only connect homeless individuals with employment opportunities and housing options, but also restore dignity and respect.
"We try to mentor these guys into a better place," Young said. "And that doesn't necessarily mean either being a productive member of our society ... Someone can be miserable with a six digit salary and someone can be just totally whole and well making no money at all."
Food in the Fort, for example, furnishes two "food pantry" style Market Days a month in addition to two "café" days, complete with a hot meal, white tablecloths and nice silverware.
The Amplifier, on the other hand, attacks false notions surrounding homelessness.
"There are a lot of erroneous assumptions about the homeless," said Elizabeth Hagler, a member of RHM's Board of Directors. "The homeless are 'lazy' or 'uneducated' or 'bums' ... It's important to get to know them on an individual level and hear their stories."
Attributing the root of homelessness to numerous environmental factors, Young emphasized the complexity of this widespread struggle.
Lauren Dunn, managing editor for The Amplifier, cited domestic violence as a frequent cause of homelessness, although the problem is not so simple.
"It's all a complicated combination of genes, family, society, chance encounters, politics, money, culture, religion," Dunn said.
Young also explained that some people simply "do not function well in this society."
Despite whatever events lead a person to homelessness, Dunn argues that the term itself perpetuates derogatory connotations.
"People experiencing homelessness are not a group or a class," Dunn said. "They are more often men than women, but they are not a group of drug addicts, criminals or people with mental disabilities. Nobody who is experiencing homelessness wants to define themselves by their current status in life. They are not 'homeless people,' as if that word explained who they are. They are people, experiencing homelessness."
But this bias, Young believes, is ingrained into societal values.
"We presuppose in this country that the American dream is out there for anybody who wants to pursue it," Young said. "We just really want to believe that it doesn't make us feel good to think that we have systems and structure that create that."
Kenna Rewcastle, junior in College Scholars and a RHM volunteer, agreed.
"Removing the societal stigma around homelessness would go a long way to allowing these individuals to re-integrate into society," Rewcastle said.
Young named one such alienating system, citing the labeling of criminals as "felons" for life, preventing them from gaining "meaningful employment," and vote.
For interested Vols, Dunn recommends purchasing The Amplifier, greeting homeless individuals with kindness, volunteering, writing to local officials on behalf of the homeless community and remaining aware of relevant local topics.
"You can get involved with or donate to any of the local services and nonprofits," Dunn said. "But an act of kindness doesn't always have to go through an established agency. What about buying someone a disposable razor or toothbrush? What about letting someone use your phone? Be smart, but be kind."
While Young acknowledged the sheer difficulty of tackling such a complex societal issue, he remains unwilling to accept defeat.
"As soon as you say it's inevitable, an individual or a community will lose their sense of urgency to address it," Young said. "... If I just accept that its inevitable, then what am I doing? You end up just trying to sooth the daily rawness of these guys' lives, and you stop trying to work for systemic changes."
Dunn, too, refuses to neglect the obligation to provide support for all citizens.
"Homelessness is only 'inevitable' in the sense that we label it that way and choose to separate people who don't fit into mainstream culture in one way or another," Dunn said. "We can choose to erase 'homeless' from our lexicon ...They are not lazy or criminal any more than any of us are."