No barriers to shelter

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Life in the sprawling Blackstock Avenue homeless camp near downtown in March. How to reach those who’d rather sleep outside than in a shelter is an ongoing challenge to social workers, and the Co-Responders program is one way to reach some of them, officials say. Photos by J.J. Stambaugh

Marco Shackleton has packed a lot of rough living into 60 years.

He left his home in Chicago at the age of 14 to do something that boys in his era often fantasized about but rarely had the guts to do. He went to work for a carnival. 

The following years, of course, saw a lot of times both good and bad. The amusement park circuit and traveling carnivals are itinerant, seasonal work that can see employees flush with cash one month and destitute the next. 

“I ran with carnivals for a lot of years,” Marco remembered with a chuckle during a recent interview at the Volunteer Ministry Center (VMC). “I took all your money….And, like a dummy, I blew it all.”

Marco slept in hotels sometimes, at least when the money was good. But he also learned to sleep in ditches, under bridges, and beside lonely roads. 

Marco Shackleton (right) talks about his six decades of life, much of it spent homeless, as VMC’s Rosie Cross looks on. Both are wearing masks during this interview, which was conducted via the internet due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Wherever I thought it was safe to sleep, I slept,” he said. “If I didn’t think it was safe, I just didn’t sleep.”

He continued: “I’ve walked down roads trying to get a place to sleep, and I’ve run down roads with animals chasing me. I just kept going. I’ve fended for myself since I was 14.”

Marco’s lifetime of wandering, however, has come to an end. 

About a year ago he came to Knoxville and ended up sleeping “under the bridge” on Broadway.  He tried getting a bed at the city’s designated emergency shelter, run by Knox Area Rescue Ministries (KARM), but it was too strict and too crowded for someone whose entire life has been an exercise in deliberate isolation and self-reliance.

“I kind of stay to myself because I’ve always been by myself,” Marco said.

Marco got lucky, though. He applied for a bed at The Foyer and he’s been sleeping there ever since.

“I get to go through the front door and I get to go to my bed area and nobody messes with me,” he said. “The staff don’t let anybody mess with me. That makes me feel safe.”

Under the bridge 

Safety is a big deal to the men and women who are experiencing homelessness on Knoxville’s streets.

It’s not something they’re accustomed to after living for a time in the many camps that have sprung up around Knoxville and Knox County like mushrooms after a rainstorm, vexing local government officials and professional social service providers alike.

In this case, the “rainstorm” that preceded the hundreds of scattered encampments was the political furor that arose in 2018 over a sprawling tent city that was painfully visible to everyone who drove on Broadway near downtown. The massive encampment provided crude shelter to hundreds of people under the Interstate 40 overpass, across the street from KARM and a few hundred feet south of VMC. 

It was Knoxville’s version of “under the bridge,” a nickname that’s used in cities all over the United States to describe large homeless communities that grow up in similar locations. The appellation perhaps owes its universal usage to the 1991 hit song “Under the Bridge” by The Red Hot Chili Peppers, an aching ballad inspired by the streets of Los Angeles. Many of the denizens of Knoxville’s tent city knew the lyrics by heart and would sometimes belt them out at random times, their voices a broken choir in the sleepless watches of the night. 

City officials ultimately closed the tent city, however, and built a “day park” for the homeless that soon became something of a joke around town because it was clear that most of the people it was meant for didn’t want to use it. The homeless population — or at least a large proportion of it — scattered to all points of the compass and soon literally hundreds of camps dotted the landscape.

“Out of sight, out of mind”

For the social workers, case managers and various other experts who work daily with the homeless population, the evolving crisis posed a host of challenges.

“We just really started seeing a lot more folks who were not going to a shelter, who were choosing to stay in encampments,” said Gabe Cline, VMC’s chief clinical services officer.  “But they were here, next to the services and getting case management…. The Homeless Coalition did a survey and determined it wasn’t so much that they didn’t want services as it was that the way we were delivering services didn’t meet their needs.”

VMC’s Gabe Cline answers questions while standing in the middle of The Foyer, Knoxville’s first (and so far only) low barrier shelter.

The different agencies were used to working together, with each having a specialist role in the overall system built to move people from the streets to a home. For instance, KARM operates the city’s designated emergency shelter which houses up to 400 people a night as well as kitchen facilities that serve around 1,000 meals a day. VMC, on the other hand, specializes in helping people obtain permanent housing and runs its own permanent supportive housing facility, Minvilla Manor.

 VMC now also operates an overnight shelter of its own: The Foyer. 

One of the lessons learned over the past few years is that a growing number of homeless people were refusing to stay at KARM for a variety of reasons but were still interested in receiving services.

The solution that VMC opted to try was to create a so-called “low barrier” shelter, which means that residents don’t have many of the restrictions that people who go to a more traditional homeless shelter may face.

“It wasn’t until people gathered under I-40 that people saw the need,” said Bruce Spangler, VMC’s chief executive officer. “The community wasn’t aware of the need. It was out of sight, out of mind.”

The notion of a low barrier shelter fit in perfectly with the “Housing First” model that VMC, the City and many of the service providers operate under. 

“We don’t work with homeless people, we are working with people who are experiencing homelessness,” Spangler said. “You’re not helping someone until housing is part of the equation, and that’s why we operate on the Housing First philosophy.”

The Foyer’s main hall. The empty row of beds down the middle is to help comply with spacing requirements caused by the pandemic.

“This really challenged us to find ways to engage folks who have a lot of trauma, a lot of barriers to housing,” Cline said. “If we’re serious about helping them address homelessness, then we’ve got to truly meet them where they are and provide this kind of service.”

“Harm reduction”

The end result was The Foyer, which occupies the building that once housed the Salvation Army Thrift Store. Funding came from a number of sources, including the City of Knoxville, and the $410,000 shelter opened its doors in late 2019.

“We needed a place that didn’t require sobriety, didn’t require people to be inside at a certain time, that takes a more harm reduction-based approach,” Cline explained.

For instance, clients aren’t required to abandon their pets just to get a bed for the night. The shelter also doesn’t break up couples and it welcomes people from the LGBTQ community.

There are still some rules that must be followed at The Foyer, the most important being that residents have to be working toward a permanent address, she said.

Also, the shelter doesn’t accept walk-ins. Those who wish to stay at The Foyer must have a referral from an outreach worker or a case manager who can verify that they’re living outdoors.

Gabe Cline of VMC points out various feature in The Foyer’s cavernous main room, which can house up to 40 men and women at a time. It currently only houses around 30, however, due to spacing concerns caused by the pandemic.

Cline said she’d tried to be conservative in her expectations for the first year The Foyer was operating but has instead been pleasantly surprised by the number of positive outcomes. She would’ve been happy if only five clients had stuck through the program until they got housing, but as it turned out an even dozen did so.

“We’ve had more success than I’d dare hope,” she said.

The Foyer currently houses around 30 men and women, she said, which is less than the 40 it was designed to hold. This is because of spacing requirements due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

Sadly, there’s no way that a shelter like The Foyer will attract everyone who needs help, she added.

“Housing is hard. Even with this as a low barrier shelter, we don’t have enough affordable housing in our community,” she said. “People know it’s going to be a really long road to get into housing.  Not everybody feels ready to deal with the reality of having to deal with the Social Security Administration to get a Social Security card, to deal with the various systems we have to deal with. For some folks, that’s just more than they can bear.”

For Marco, the past year he spent at The Foyer was one of the happiest of his life. 

When he sat down to be interviewed in early March, he was looking forward to finally moving into his own apartment at Minvilla Manor in just a few days. 

“The Foyer is a real great place for people who want to get off the streets and get their life together,” Marco said. “They’ve got to go through some stuff, but it’s worth it.”

Marco said several times that the sense of peace and safety he got at The Foyer was priceless to him. He explained that he suffers from heart problems and requires both medicine and regular rest. But he also doesn’t want to be seen as an invalid; he likes to talk about how tough he’s had to become just to survive long enough to finally have a place he can call home.

“The only one who can put me down is God,” he said, smiling. “I slept under the bridge…. Now I don’t sleep under bridges no more.”

J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at jjstambaugh@hardknoxwire.com.

Published on March 29, 2021