What do you do when you have no shelter to shelter-in-place? Community leaders and city government officials are confronting that question as two humanitarian crises overlap on the streets of Knoxville: COVID-19 and homelessness.
Houselessness is a growing problem in the city of Knoxville. The Knoxville Homeless Management Information System (KnoxHMIS) reported a 3% increase in the number of people who accessed services related to homelessness in the year 2018. 21% of those individuals (1,899) were classified as “street homeless,” meaning that they live in “a place not meant for human habitation,” such as a car or outdoor camp. Marginalized groups are disproportionately represented among those affected by the homelessness crisis. For example, 29% of KHMIS’s active clients are black, despite the fact that black Knoxvillians only make up 9% of our total population. Though the study mentions suspected underreporting, 17% of active clients have a disability.
Not having secure shelter is enough of a problem, even before you factor in the criminalization of homelessness; law enforcement frequently dismantles what little shelter the houseless population in the city does manage to erect. According to a WVLT interview, Knoxville Police Department “[cleared] out at least 10 campsites” each week as of December 2019. This practice was commonplace long before COVID and effectively forces houseless individuals into congregate settings (such as large homeless shelters or soup kitchens) that the CDC describes as posing a risk for disease transmission.
As of April 1st, Knoxville city government has allocated $95,000 for the operation of a shelter for homeless individuals who test positive for COVID-19. However, “The Guest House” will only have the space to house 18 individuals — a far cry from the 1,800+ reported street homeless population. Mayor Kincannon’s COVID-19 Recovery Budget also includes $428,017 in grants (both local and federal) for agencies supporting houseless people.
The pandemic has thrown a harsh light on the ways in which Knoxville has failed to mitigate houselessness in our community. If you want to help combat the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on the houseless population of Knoxville, you can donate to or volunteer with organizations like Sleeves4Needs and CareCuts. Though CareCuts normally provides showering and a clothing exchange, restrictions on operations mean that they’re instead distributing food and hygiene bags to vulnerable members of the community. Sleeves4Needs provides food and other necessities to houseless individuals and low-income families in Knoxville.
Kaelynn Stewart is Campaign Coordinator at Held Law Firm.