KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — More homeless, more rural camps, more needs to be done.

A new report about homelessness in Knox County presented at Monday’s commissioners meeting was compiled by the Knox County Grants and Community Development through consultations with nonprofit agencies, faith-based organizations, the City of Knoxville, and other Knox County departments.

Read the full report.

In the first quarter of this year, around 7,000 people were receiving homeless services. Of those, 2,474 are classified as “literally homeless.” Nearly half of those were veterans, seniors, youth and families. More than 2,000 unhoused young people currently live in the city and county, the report states.

Data in the report shows around 7,700 people received homeless services from July to September this year.

“Families with children are living in their cars, emergency shelter beds for seniors are full, and an increasing number of individuals with severe mental illness or uncontrolled substance misuse disorders are living on the street. While the difficulties faced by unhoused individuals and families is by far the most acutely felt consequence of homelessness, the entire community is affected and suffers the negative impacts of the issue,” the report states.

Homelessness is no longer a city-center issue, said Jenny Holden, senior director of grants and community development in Knox County.

Homeless service agencies interviewed for the report describe continual growth in homelessness outside the City of Knoxville. A “substantial growth” in the number of homeless camps in unincorporated areas of the county is noted, with at least 13 locations in unincorporated areas. Avoidance of the city is attributed to several things in the report, including proximity to family or familiar resources, fear of victimization and prevalence of drugs.

Image of map showing homeless encampments within Knox County.
Courtesy of Knox County Grants and Community Development.

Homeless service providers shared with the report authors that they are seeing an unprecedented number of people seeking emergency shelter when compared with last year’s numbers.

While the cause of homelessness is unique to each situation, the authors of the report found a list of significant contributors came up repeatedly during interviews. The report states that of the top 5 causes of homelessness in Knox County, a lack of affordable housing tops the list.

Just one-third of residents currently living in Knoxville can afford to become homeowners, the report states. The typical home value for the Knoxville area is $307,849 — affordable for households with a yearly income of $84,651. That’s just shy of $41 an hour, net pay.

Increasing home prices and a limited supply of homes available to purchase has pushed even more people into the rental market. Demand exceeds supply by more than 50% in Knox County, the report states.

Earlier this year, nearly 99% of rentals in Knoxville were full. That demand has led to a 19.7% increase in rent prices since 2020, further limiting housing options for low- to moderate-income families.

The other causes most often noted were eviction; Job loss/underemployment; Substance misuse; and mental health.

The report also notes that data from the Knoxville Homeless Management Information system shared in 2020 may not have been 100% accurate. For example, that information said 24% of people said then that “health” was their primary cause of homelessness. That category included mental health, long-term medical conditions and substance misuse. This new information cites several Knox County agencies saying that number is much higher.

In addition to input from agencies, the city and county, the report includes information from people who sought homelessness services. They were asked for their recommendations for additional services. Some of their ideas are:

  • Assistance with vehicle repairs and maintenance
  • Fuel vouchers and transportation to access bus lines
  • Transportation to job interviews and medical appointments
  • Additional access to public restrooms
  • Designated overnight parking areas
  • Storage options for their belongings
  • Additional assistance in obtaining housing
  • Referrals for mental health/physical healthcare
  • Access to additional shower and laundry facilities

“While there are no quick solutions or easy answers for a problem as complicated as homelessness, developing a plan that addresses the County’s specific needs and resources will provide long-term benefits for both our unhoused residents and community as a whole,” the report concludes.

The goal of the report is to help identify unique impacts and resources within Knox County in order to provide more effective solutions than have been applied in the past. The report delivers four policy recommendations:

  1. Policy on homelessness – Develop a formal policy addressing homelessness in the County In coordination with County departments, the Knox County Sheriff’s Office, City of Knoxville, and local nonprofit agencies.
  2. Joint office – Stand up the Knoxville-Knox County Office of Housing Stability through a partnership between Knox County and the City of Knoxville. The office will take the lead on issues of housing stability and homelessness with an initial goal of evaluating funding and programs to identify gaps and future needs. An Executive Director, reporting to the Board, could then be hired to oversee programs and work with area nonprofits and faith-based organizations to ensure coordination of efforts.
  3. Teague Clinic – Repurpose the clinic as office space for joint office and other personnel working on issues related to housing stability.
  4. Homeless Day Centers – Partner with area faith-based organizations to create additional day centers around the County modeled on Cokesbury’s Fig Tree. Support these churches in developing programs providing meals, showers, laundry facilities, computer labs, cellphone charging stations, and access to case management services.