A Look at Homeless Organizations in East Tennessee
By John M Disque
In East Tennessee there are over 80 organizations that in some way help the homeless. Naturally, some do more than others. Some are huge worldwide corporations like the Salvation Army or YMCA. Others are merely listed as supporters of the 10-year plan (a nation-wide plan to end, or decrease, homelessness) or the East TN Coalition for the Homeless (who form partnerships with the existing homeless organizations). Many are churches, local businesses, hospitals, police departments, housing authorities, libraries, schools. The remainder are long-time organizations like KARM.
The ones I am focusing on in this article are the individuals and organizations who actually get out on the streets to hand the homeless people blankets, food, water, and love. These are the people proving that they actually do care. The others might care, and I'm sure most of them do; however, these folks take their lives in their hands and use the little bit of resources they have to make sure their help is getting directly to the streets. It impresses me because I can see it. There's nothing to hide behind. It's not complicated. It's all right there in one picture.
Sadly, the best that a smaller organization can do is meet immediate emergency needs such as food and water. What is needed is a doctor on the streets diagnosing their fellow human beings and a dentist checking teeth. An excellent new beginning on eliminating homelessness is businessmen giving job interviews or lawyers willing to help someone with their legal issues.
When word got around of my new series a friend of mine wanted me to meet Maxine Raines, executive director of Lost Sheep Ministry (http://lostsheepministry.org). Lost Sheep is a non-profit mobile ministry based in Knoxville and focused on battling the epidemic of homelessness. Their mission is to provide love, addiction recovery guidance, Christian views, food, clothes, alternatives, and support while coordinating assistance with churches and social agencies throughout the city.
Every week, Lost Sheep meets "under the bridge" helping to feed and clothe 400-500 people in need. They also partner with existing organizations and refer clients to the groups that can best meet their needs. "Under The Bridge" is a nickname given to a section of US Hwy 40 which bridges over Broadway near 5th Ave. Since it is in close proximity to KARM and The Salvation Army, it is has become home to a large percent of East Tennessee's homeless population.
My friend and I arrived at Lost Sheep's weekly gathering about half an hour early on a Wednesday evening. I wasn't quite sure what to expect. I would soon see a large area of tables surrounded by trucks and vans bringing in water, food and clothes. Seated at the tables were about 100 people, but that number would more than quadruple in the next few minutes. The entire area became a non-stop bustle of activity.
As I took a slow walk around the outside of the area to take some pictures, I soon come across "the lady herself" who was quite busy taking care of the event and getting ready to start whatever she was about to start. My introduction would have to wait, but there was plenty going on to keep me busy.
I took a few pictures and met people from other organizations who all seemed to be there to offer support and help to Maxine. I made a lot of friends while seeing some familiar smiling faces and, of course, we all spoke on the issue of homelessness. After connecting with some of the organizations on a few key issues, we vowed to meet at a later date, exchanged business cards, and I went about my business of snooping.
When I noticed the microphone being set up, I took for granted that it was going to be a preaching session delivered during the meal and couldn't help but question it. This same strategy has been used for decades while the problem of homelessness has done nothing but increase. When will the people realize that it's not working and a new strategy has to be developed? I wondered about the Jewish people in the crowd and the agnostic, atheist people or any one of the many religions existing that are not considered Christianity. How did they feel about this issue? How does Maxine herself deal with this? Is the idea to convert people? Are the people considered even "more lost" if their religious or lack of religious views do not gel with Lost Sheep Ministries? Do they still get fed? Do they get a chance to speak? What about the other organizations? Does anyone care about anyone's religion? Why does this even play a part in any of it? Are you going to tell me it gives them hope? Are you going to tell me they haven't heard it their whole lives? They need hope and faith in themselves.
Maxine's time at the microphone was not what I expected. They said a short prayer then went on with a little bit of fire in her voice. She spoke of her time on the streets as a child and explained why she was reaching back. She then went on to state that some of the people there tonight had been on the streets for over 20 years. She pointed out that some were not utilizing the hope offered to the homeless and, in a somewhat frustrated voice, explained that she didn't understand it. There was no religious preaching. By the time she was finished, I was smiling and could tell that Mrs. Raines was one tough cookie that was indeed doing her very best.
After wandering back to my friend seated at one of the tables, she pointed out a family with seven young children who were all getting comfortable and preparing to eat. We both agreed that they should be interviewed, so I went over and asked the mother if it she were willing to talk. She was. The father, however, didn't want anything to do with an interview nor the camera strapped around my neck.
I stayed busy with the kids who were all curious about the camera as I snapped pictures and showed them how it's done. In the meantime, my friend was interviewing the lady who said they were not homeless but were a step away and looking for some kind of assistance. Apparently dad had lost his job due to the economy, and they were having trouble meeting their bills; particularly their KUB bill which was now over $800. KUB, was threatening to cut off their electricity.
From there the interview got way off track so I went back to playing with the kids. It wasn't long before I was interrupted and looking the lady in the eye. "What are the organizations not doing that they could do better? What do you need? What would you do for you if you were an organization who wanted to help you?"
"My husband needs a job." On the edge of tears she continued to swear he was a hard worker but couldn't read or write and just needed a job. "He's out there looking every day yet no one will hire him." I wasn't sure if she was finished. I just sat there looking at her while the sun was setting behind her. "No one is helping him find a job?" I asked. She just shook her head for a few seconds and then simply said, "No."
I finally did get to meet Maxine. After taking her picture, I went on to applaud her and what she was doing to assist the homeless. She was quick to take the attention off herself and give it to the many people helping her saying, "It's not me, it's them. There's no way I could do this without them." She was soon off making the rounds, shaking hands, and hugging people while dinner was being served.
We eventually started making our way back to the car but not before one last good look around. It was almost too much to grasp, so you just have to take snap-shots: a young lady trying on a new pair of shoes, a young man grabbing a new pair of socks, people being handed gallons of water, an old man with a new book and the family of seven children eating as if they hadn't eaten in days.
Throughout the months of studying homelessness in Knoxville, I was hearing some rather harsh things about KARM (Knoxville Area Rescue Ministry, formed in 1960 to meet the growing needs of the area's homeless). The rumors proved to be untrue, at least the ones I addressed on one particular day. KARM will feed you no matter what your religious or lack of religious beliefs are. They will also feed you if don't have identification.
Staying overnight is another story, but it wasn't my immediate concern. My stomach was cramping, I just got in from Mobile Alabama, my ID was stolen in Mississippi and I was hungry and weak. They welcomed me and fed me immediately.
Was it wrong to lie to them about who I was and what my condition was? I'll let you decide for yourself but whether it is or isn't – it was "more wrong" for someone to tell me they wouldn't feed me when they would.
Most people have heard about "The Ten Year Plan." Knoxville is one of twenty cities nationwide who chose to participate in "The Ten Year Plan," implementing it in 2006 with a goal of using local, state, and federal resources to address chronic homelessness.
"The ten year plan will offer medical, dental and vision care services as well as mental health counseling, legal assistance, help with various benefits programs, information and referral for housing, haircuts and much more."
According to "Homeless Hub" the idea started in the year 2000 with "The National Alliance to End Homelessness" who called on communities throughout the country to take part in the plan. On the other hand Knoxville says "United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH)" brought together agencies and other resources to coordinate the national effort and then called on communities throughout the country.
Do Ten Year Plans work? Regardless of who started it, since 2000 success rates vary. Denver began in 2005 and, in the first two years, reported an 11% decrease in the homeless population. Sacramento and Portland OR have also reported success while Calgary was busy watching what these cites were doing and implemented their own Ten Year Plan.
Calgary seems to be the city most "on top" of the situation and has gathered the most research. They state that the key is continual evolution and adaptation. According to Tim Ricter, director of the Calgary Homeless Foundation, "Needs, experiences and economic situations are constantly changing." Due to Calgary's lead, other cities across Canada have adopted their own plan.
Underage minors make up 6% of the homeless population. This percentage is actually much higher because the minors are in hiding going to great lengths to keep from being counted. The problem is worse in some cities like Hollywood, New York, Miami and New Orleans because young people often have the false impression of a non-stop party-like atmosphere where they may even have a chance to become "someone." These minors are often runaways escaping severe abuse. In other cases they are simply throwaways. The kids have a whole different set of problems that the adult homeless do not have and they're forced to be more creative (Ex: they cannot apply for assistance, work, housing, etc).
Although the intentions are good they're not thought out and are a perfect example of some bureaucracy controlling something they know little about. Almost 100% of the time the goal is to get the child reunited with the abusive caregiver. Greyhound even offers free bus rides straight back into the hands of what they're running from. Running from an abusive situation is a human being screaming and proving that they will no longer be a part of the sickness. That, in itself, is a sign of perfect mental health. It's brave and it's almost heroic. It should somehow be rewarded yet the child runs from it straight into a society that further abuses them. In hiding they are met by low-level pimps, child-abusers, further abandonment and drug dealers. Out of hiding they are seen as lawbreaking troublemakers and treated with absolutely no respect.
When I was homeless it was on the streets of LA it was 20 years ago. It was the kids who took me in, watched my back and showed me the ropes. While the only place they could turn was to their own bonded community, they were beyond incredible and the biggest part of my heart will forever go to this supposed 6% of the homeless population.
Published in Knoxville Daily Sun November 29, 2010
Published in East TN News October 4, 2010