A New Alternative to the Streets

A New Alternative to the Streets

Volunteer Ministry Center, with the help of city taxpayers, wants to establish Knoxville’s first ‘low-barrier’ homeless shelter.

by scott barker • March 12, 2019
The former Salvation Army thrift store on Broadway.

Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero has proposed financial assistance to Volunteer Ministry Center to create the city’s first “low-barrier” homeless shelter.

Low-barrier shelters have fewer restrictions than traditional overnight shelters for the homeless population.

In a budget amendment for City Council to consider at tonight’s meeting, the administration earmarked $245,000 for VMC to renovate the former Salvation Army thrift store on Broadway.

“It’s designed for folks who don’t use traditional shelters,” said Bruce Spangler, chief executive officer of Volunteer Ministry Center.

The building is located next to the daytime safe space the city built underneath the Interstate 40 overpass. Spangler said the 48-bed overnight shelter would complement the daytime safe space and provide another entry point to eventually get people into permanent housing.

Low-barrier shelters have fewer restrictions than traditional shelters like those operated by the Salvation Army and Knox Area Rescue Ministries. They don’t require participation in religious activities and don’t require sobriety -- though Spangler emphasized that clients would be responsible for their behavior.

Low-barrier shelters focus on getting people into permanent housing as quickly as possible so they can then focus on the issues that made them homeless. Spangler said the Housing First model has proven to be effective in Knoxville and across the country.

Case workers would have to refer people to the shelter for overnight stays and would work to get clients into permanent housing. According to Spangler, the primary requirement for staying in the low-barrier shelter would be a willingness to work toward getting into housing. “You can stay there as long as you’re making progress,” Spangler said.

The facility would have restrooms and showers, offices for VMC employees, a laundry room, and possibly restrooms for people who use the daytime safe space.

Many other cities have opened low-barrier shelters in recent years. New Orleans placed a 100-bed low-barrier shelter in one floor of a former Veterans Administration hospital. After the Salvation Army switched to a low-barrier model in Charlotte, N.C., average stays at its 340-bed Center of Hope shelter dropped from six months to 39 days.

Before the City of Knoxville began construction on the daytime safe space late last year, dozens of people, many of them homeless, would gather beneath the overpass and spill out onto the sidewalks. Spangler said a study by the Homeless Coalition and VMC determined about half the people who congregated there were drug traffickers and other predators.

About 40-50 slept beneath the overpass on a given night, Spangler said. The survey found that three quarters of the people staying under the bridge reported no income whatsoever.

Many of the homeless population who resist staying in traditional shelters suffer from mental illness, including social phobias that make them avoid staying with large numbers of people, Spangler said. The smaller low-barrier shelter would give them an alternative.

“We’re trying to create options for as many people we can,” said Michael Dunthorn, homeless program coordinator for the city.

City Councilwoman Lauren Rider, who represents many North Knoxville neighborhoods, said area businesses and residents have felt the fallout of the city’s temporary closure of the space underneath the overpass. “There are a lot of small camps in the 4th District and other areas of the city,” she said.

“I think it’s a good thing,” Rider said of the proposed low-barrier shelter, though she added, “It’s not a cure-all.”

Councilwoman Seema Singh-Perez, who has expressed concern about the plight of the homeless who gathered under the overpass and about the initial slow response to the safe space, agreed that the low-barrier shelter would fill a need.

“This will serve a lot of homeless people that have more issues than just housing,” Singh-Perez said. “Hopefully, over time, the space will be utilized better.”

The funding request is part of the Rogero administration’s mid-year budget adjustments. City Council must give its approval twice for the amendment to take effect. The first reading will be at tonight’s meeting.