Homeless camps stir emotions, debate

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Baseball cards and used syringes are strewn through the remains of a homeless camp in Fountain City that was cleared this week by Knoxville officials.

There’s no telling exactly how many homeless men and women sleep in primitive campsites in Knoxville each night.

Everyone agrees that it’s far too many.

The lucky ones have sleeping bags and tents, probably donated. Others huddle under tarps or build primitive lean-tos from branches and trash. Fire pits are the norm, as are clotheslines strung between trees and plastic bags stuffed with rags. 

They carry their worldly possessions on their backs or in shopping carts. Some of them are masters of urban camouflage, and a campsite with a dozen people can be hidden in the middle of even well-off neighborhoods if the nearby homeowners aren’t too nosy.

Thus far this week, Knoxville Police Department officers have conducted three “camp cleanups” in the city, including one in the 5000 block of North Broadway in Fountain City, according to KPD spokesman Scott Erland.

The North Broadway camp was located by a creek that adjoins the parking lot of the McDonalds at the corner of Knox Road.

It was an ideal place for a hidden encampment. Sheltered by a line of trees and a small dip in the ground, the campsite was only hundreds of feet away Kroger’s, two chain drugstores, and a dozen restaurants.

Hours after the campers and city officials had cleared the scene, debris was spread throughout the former living area for up to a half-dozen homeless people. Much of the trash was what one might expect: clothes, toiletries, and drug paraphernalia like used syringes.

 But also lying on the ground was a debit card, a rosary, a vinyl LP in its sleeve and a once-handsome collection of baseball cards that had obviously been cared for by their owner until the box was dumped unceremoniously into the dirt. 

Employees of the nearby McDonalds were glad to see the camp shut down.

Although none of the employees wanted to give their names because they didn’t want to get in trouble at work, one young woman described intoxicated men walking through the parking lot late at night and sometimes panhandling from customers.

“They caused us problems,” she said. “Sometimes this one guy was real nasty, and he’d try to use the bathroom. …. It (the camp) was just trouble.”

The very existence of such encampments — which can be found in secluded spots across Knoxville — sparks heated debate. Everyone agrees that something needs to be done, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a City official who doesn’t say they want the poorest of the poor off the streets and in stable housing.

The question of how to reach that goal, however, is fraught with disagreement. 

City Councilwoman Amelia Parker, for instance, is indignant that Mayor Indya Kincannon’s administration has opted for a policy of dismantling the camps and ordering their occupants to move along. 

She argues that the combination of the COVID pandemic, the existence of federal dollars meant to provide emergency housing, and basic human empathy should compel the City to either leave the camps alone or else provide immediate shelter to those who are displaced. 

She says that failing to do so is a violation of CDC guidelines concerning the homeless during the pandemic and hints that it may ultimately invite a lawsuit in federal court. 

On Wednesday — the day after a proposal meant to spark discussion about legalizing homeless camps met with an icy reception from other council members — Parker sent a letter co-signed by the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Homelessness Law Center backing up her claims to a slew of City officials and council members.

Over 20 other agencies were listed as signatories. 

(See Parker’s letter here https://nlchp.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Knoxville-re-Sweeps-2-24-2021.pdf?fbclid=IwAR1dguAA-yCOVvkDsKZaFy542fAFDqwKtRXhedJHymPO-UZLWo_DBUzjgUU )

“We have little in our zoning codes for emergency shelters and we have a growing crisis,” she said. “We have got to think long-term.”

She added: “How can we ensure that everyone from our community, including the poorest of the poor, are able to recover?”

Mayor Kincannon’s administration couldn’t agree more — at least, up to a point.

Both Kincannon and Parker are on the Left of the political spectrum, and both of them say that fighting homelessness should be a priority. The question is how to achieve the agreed upon goal of getting as many homeless people into permanent housing as possible.

In the last year, the City has spent more than $6.8 million on homeless programs. Also, City officials work closely with many of the social services agencies that collect charitable donations for the homeless and then turn those dollars into concrete help.

Kincannon’s administration, however, has made it clear that the kind of homeless encampments that have been cropping up across Knoxville aren’t acceptable. 

The camps are a threat to public health and safety, officials argue. The lack of running water and toilet facilities means that homeless encampments aren’t sanitary and can even affect nearby businesses and residences. Plus, they sometimes lead to an increase in criminal activity.

Since Jan. 1, Knoxville Police Department officers and Public Service crews have shut down between five and eight camps a week, according to figures provided by KPD.

But many people who work with the homeless population, particularly grassroots activists, have attacked the policies as cruel, counterproductive and unnecessary. 

Emotions run so high over this issue, in fact, that even the words used to describe the city’s actions can trigger heated arguments. 

Activists and Parker have described the operations as “raids” and say it’s inherently cruel to throw the occupants out. They also claim that homeless campers often lose what few possessions they own when KPD shows up to move them.

City officials, however, say it’s misleading to call the actions “raids.” They prefer to call them “cleanups” and stress that residents are given 72 hours’ notice, are allowed to carry away their possessions, and are given access to social services

The city has even created a Web page containing their answers to frequently asked questions about the issue. (It can be found at https://www.knoxvilletn.gov/cms/One.aspx?portalId=109562&pageId=17372281 )

Chris Irwin, a longtime activist and criminal defense attorney at the Knox County Public Defender’s Office, said closing the camps only makes the overall situation worse and pointed out that they just pop up again in another location.   

“What happens when they break the camps up is they take desperate, marginal people and make them more desperate and more marginal,” Irwin said. 

Irwin stressed that he was addressing this issue on his own time and was not representing the PD’s Office. 

During his legal career, he continued, he has represented many homeless defendants and is familiar with what happens when camps are cleared. 

Irwin is one of many activists who claim that homeless men and women have lost essential items of property when they were forced to leave their campsites.

“Throwing sleeping bags and winter gear away right before winter is savage and should be beneath us in a democracy,” he said. “Throwing away prescription meds for people struggling with mental health issues makes the problem worse. Throwing away peoples identification, disability applications, and veterans’ records takes a bad situation and makes it ten times worse.” 

While City officials have pointed out the many negatives associated with the camps, Irwin said they are essential to the safety of many people who live on the streets.

“There are many benefits to centralized locations, one of which is if someone ODs they don’t die alone in some alley, there are people that can watch them,” he explained. “There is safety in numbers. There are reasons people form camps.  

“And yes, it is not pretty. There are issues of addiction, vets with PTSD, mental health issues — but all of those are made worse when you drive these citizens underground.”

Remnants of a fire pit in what’s left of a homeless camp in Fountain City.

According to Parker, one obvious solution to the problem is to use money offered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to put the homeless in local hotels. The FEMA program existed before President Joe Biden took office but it only reimbursed local governments for 75 percent of the cost of hotel rooms. 

A rule change since his administration took over, however, means that 100 percent of the costs are covered, she said.

“We all share the goal of a Knoxville without homeless encampments—but the best, most cost-effective, and permanent way to achieve that is to ensure that all who live in those encampments are able to access adequate housing,” Parker wrote in the letter.

“The use of hotel rooms during the pandemic presents an opportunity for cities to take a huge leap forward in their plan to end homelessness. All on the federal dime, Knoxville could potentially transform the lives of many in the community experiencing homelessness by providing them months of dignified, stable shelter and protection from a global pandemic.

“The FEMA reimbursement funds offer Knoxville critical dollars that could be directly invested immediately into a struggling hospitality industry or used to acquire buildings that could be converted into transitional or permanent supportive housing. Knoxville officials owe it to your community to bring these federal dollars into the city, allowing the city to be able to close encampments not only in the short-term but also potentially the long-term if COVID relief funds are properly leveraged.”

When asked if seeking an opinion from the ACLU meant that legal action against the City was being contemplated, Parker replied: “That’s definitely not on my to-do list…. I do encourage people to document what’s happening so they can advocate for the rights of themselves and the most vulnerable among us.”

A spokeswoman for the ACLU said Thursday that Executive Director Hedy Weinberg, who co-signed the letter, “is not available to speak …. about the letter at this time.”

Eric Vreeland, spokesman for the City of Knoxville, said that officials haven’t had a chance to work through the implications of the change in FEMA policy.

“The City appreciates Councilwoman Parker raising this issue,” he said. “The guidelines from FEMA on support for non-congregate shelter changed after President Biden took office.

“This is a new federal policy – it’s less than a month old. The City’s Office on Homelessness has for weeks been looking at the new guidelines and working to clarify issues. For example, a key issue will be how to provide support services, and who would be the provider, if the City is able to take part in the program.”

Vreeland stressed that the goal is the same for everyone working on the issue.

“The goal of the City and our service provider partners has always been not just to bring in people from the outdoors, but also to help them access support services and move on to more appropriate permanent housing and a better, more healthy life,” he said.

Councilwoman Lauren Rider, who represents the 4th District, said that she’s visited several camps frequented by the homeless population and was disturbed to learn how “terrified” their occupants were.

She think that many critics of the City’s camping policy don’t have a good understanding of the kinds of lives that are lived by the homeless who sleep outdoors.

“A lot of people don’t realize the cost (of camping),” she said. “We need more support for the homeless to keep them safe.”

Rider cited the area around Blackstock Avenue as the location of numerous sites that show how desperate life in some encampments can be. 

“Did you know that it’s not free to camp there?” she explained. “The homeless charge other homeless fees to camp. There’s a pecking order. If you don’t pay the fee, the penalty is victimization by breaking their arm, victimization by raping them.

“People are gripped with fear.”

But even when faced with the danger of becoming the victims of horrific crimes, many homeless people are still resistant to seeking assistance at local shelters, she said.

“I see both sides,” she said. “People are terrified, but it’s the Devil they know versus the Devil they don’t know.”

Rider said that both the general public and the homeless don’t know how many shelter options are now available.

Volunteer Ministry Center now operates The Foyer, which is a so-called “low barrier” shelter. It accepts homeless men and women with pets or who can’t stay sober, removing some of the main objections that people give for not wanting to leave the camps, she said. 

“There is room for everyone there,” she said.

Published on February 26, 2021.