Council to hear of establishment of homeless zoning district

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A Knoxville city councilwoman wants to change zoning rules to allow homeless people to camp legally while they search for more permanent housing. 

Councilwoman Amelia Parker’s resolution asks for the Knoxville-Knox County Planning Commission to explore “the creation of a new zoning district or a new overlay district to establish regulations for temporary encampments to be used as part of a continuum of shelter and housing.”

Parker, a vocal critic of local government’s policies concerning the homeless, said in her proposal there were an estimated 300 encampments in the city last year and the most recent data available indicated that nearly 1,100 people in Knoxville were “experiencing unsheltered street homelessness.”

Parker didn’t return numerous phone calls and emails seeking comment Monday.

According to Parker’s resolution, which will be heard at today’s Council meeting, a “public health emergency may require” the city to allow people to stay in temporary encampments. The resolution also pointed out that the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness has determined that forcibly breaking up camps “is not an appropriate solution or strategy” for transitioning people to adequate housing. 

She wants temporary campsites that are “compatible and harmonious with surrounding areas” to become a recognized stage in the “continuum of shelter and housing.”

Parker, one of the loudest progressive voices in local politics and an outspoken police critic, has said that breaking up homeless camps is inhumane and leaves displaced persons vulnerable to the elements, theft and violence. 

City officials have countered that the camps are unsafe, unsanitary, and often lead to an increase in crime. Officials maintain that they usually give the people living in the camps up to 72 hours notice before cleaning up a site and that social workers are brought in to get the residents help. 

“Those homeless camp cleanups are often, and inaccurately, depicted as raids,” said KPD spokesman Scott Erland. “That is just simply not an accurate representation of how those cleanups are conducted and the purpose of the cleanups in their totality. 

“In full, the cleanups are done to help those living in the encampments connect with services, live with dignity and ultimately get on the path towards a long-term solution that includes permanent housing.”

Erland said that “an average of 5 to 8” camps per week have been cleaned up since Jan.1.

“A variety of factors are considered and play a role in determining when it is appropriate to conduct a camp cleanup, including illegal activity in and around the encampment, health and sanitation concerns, declining environmental conditions and citizen complaints,” he said. 

Erland said Monday that KPD “will not offer a statement or opinion” about the pending resolution.

“I presume there will be great discussion regarding that resolution at tomorrow’s council meeting,” he said.

If homeless camps are legitimized in the future, many of the local nonprofit agencies that work with the homeless population stand to be affected one way or another. 

Perhaps the best known of those agencies, Knox Area Rescue Ministries, operates an emergency shelter and provides daily meals for the homeless population concentrated on the northern edge of downtown. 

KARM spokeswoman Karen Bowdle said agency officials will be paying close attention to Parker’s resolution.

“We just know so little about her proposal ourselves,” she said. “We are also anxious to hear about what she presents to the City about rezoning areas to allow for legal homeless camps.”

City of Knoxville spokesman Eric Vreeland issued the following statement Monday: “Mayor (Indya) Kincannon supports efforts that work toward long-term supportive housing.  She is looking forward to discussing this and other issues at an upcoming Council workshop on homelessness.”

City Council is scheduled to meet at 6 p.m. today via Zoom video/audio conferencing.

Published February 23, 2021