A Shelter From the Storm

A Shelter From the Storm

The Guest House will provide a place where COVID-19 patients who are homeless can go into quarantine.

by scott barker • April 2, 2020
The Guest House.

The Metro Drug Coalition, social service providers and the City of Knoxville are teaming up to establish a shelter for people who are homeless and test positive for COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.

Though no one who is homeless has tested positive for the novel coronavirus so far, an outbreak could devastate the population.

Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon announced plans for the facility, to be called The Guest House, on Tuesday.

“It’s important to note there are no confirmed cases in the homeless community right now in Knoxville, but we felt it was vitally important to have a designated place for those showing symptoms,” Kincannon said. 

The Metro Drug Coalition is providing its 22,500-square-foot building at 530 W. Fifth Ave. for the facility. The site of the coalition’s future Gateway Recovery Community Center, the building hasn’t been renovated yet but is in good enough condition to be converted as an emergency quarantine center.

“It’s not perfect, it’s not optimum, but it will get the job done,” said Bruce Spangler, CEO of Volunteer Ministry Center.

VMC will manage the facility, which will accept coronavirus-positive people who have been experiencing homelessness. Referrals will come from doctors, hospitals and the Health Department. 

The city will provide up to $95,000 for operations over the next two months. Knox Area Rescue Ministries, the Knox Baptist Association, United Way, Next Step Initiative, Community Action Committee, Angelic Ministries and others have offered resources including food delivery, portable showers and laundry facilities.

Though no one who is homeless has tested positive for the novel coronavirus so far, an outbreak could devastate the population, especially those staying in emergency shelters. Self-isolation, which is recommended for all COVID-19 patients who aren’t hospitalized, is nearly impossible for someone without a permanent home. 

People who are homeless often have weakened immune systems and pre-existing health conditions that put them at risk for developing severe cases of COVID-19 if exposed to the coronavirus.

“Metro Drug Coalition is extremely concerned about the health and wellbeing of our most vulnerable populations in our community,” said Karen Pershing, MDC’s executive director. 

“The social service agencies have been working collaboratively to identify how to best continue services, while adhering to CDC guidelines,” she continued. “The homeless population is one of the most challenging and MDC has a vacant building near the homeless corridor that we believe can help fill a critical gap in preventing the spread of COVID-19 among this population by offering the space to our homeless service providers.”

Kincannon said The Guest House would provide a place for those who have been tested while they await the results and would be a temporary home for those who test positive. “There’s room for people to be quarantined in that space for now,” she said.

Officials have been concerned about what would happen if a person spread the coronavirus through one of the city’s homeless shelters. Even facilities where residents don’t have the issues faced by the homeless population can become hotspots where the coronavirus can spread quickly.

Dr. Martha Buchanan, director of the Knox County Health Department, said three residents and one staff member at a single assisted living facility in Knox County have tested positive for the coronavirus. Tests for three other staff members are pending, she said, and every other resident has tested negative. 

Located next to Minvilla Manor and around the corner from the city’s primary homeless shelters, the building that will become The Guest House has 18 offices that haven’t been renovated but can be used as bedrooms. MDC is in the middle of a $2.2 million capital campaign to turn the building into a drug recovery center. 

The building is a former commercial space in need of renovations. A tagger has painted graffiti on one wall of the building’s worn exterior. “It’s not pretty,” conceded Stephanie Welch, the city’s chief economic and community development officer, “but it’s very functional.”

Though many who are homeless don’t have regular access to media information about COVID-19, awareness among the population is high, Spangler said.


At VMC, he said, signs about the novel coronavirus abound. Staff members remind clients about social distancing and hand-washing. VMC’s street outreach team goes to the city’s designated safe space on Broadway underneath the Interstate 40 overpass to educate people gathered there about the risks.

Kincannon thanked the organizations that are contributing to The Guest House. “We are pleased so many community partners are joining forces to help open this shelter,” she said.