Knoxville and homelessness: The city’s ‘Day Space,’ what leaders think and a story of hope

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WATE 6 On Your Side is focusing our investigative lens to the city’s plan to address homelessness in Knoxville and what impacts have resulted from the “Day Space” that opened in late 2018. What we have found are stories of strife, leaders looking for solutions, and glimmers of hope. 

In October 2018, the city of Knoxville announced its intent to open a “Day Space” for locals experiencing homelessness that would have benches and tables for day-use only, since there had been issues of those experiencing homelessness using an area beneath the I-40 bridge at Broadway as a place to rest, etc. 

Prior to the “day space” creation, the area under the bridge was reportedly becoming an unhealthy, unsafe and unsanitary environment. Which is why officials from the city’s Office on Homelessness said they needed to take action. 

The city made some strides to ease the issue, opening up the “day space” in December 2018. It came as some of the people living or staying beneath the I-40 bridge at Broadway were not taking advantage of nearby organizations dedicated to offering services. 

So with that, a new plan from the city – city leaders authorizing construction and renovations for use of the space; emptying out the area and putting up fencing. It was an offer to give people a place to be safe, with security on-site, plus access to basic amenities like tables, benches and portable restrooms. 

Also, access to social workers stationed under the bridge.

“The overall goal of the day space is simply addressing a need in our community of having a place for people to simply be if there’s not, if they don’t feel like there’s somewhere else they can be,” says Michael Dunthorn, programs coordinator with Knoxville’s Office on Homelessness. “It’s also to have a starting point, where if they’ve hit that point where they don’t feel they like they can be anywhere else, they can be there, and then we can connect them again with social workers who are going to help them get out of there and into the resources they need to get into permanent housing.”

Nearing 3 months later, the big question on everyone’s mind being, “Do homelessness leaders think the day space is working successfully?” 

What WATE 6 On Your Side was told – yes, so far. 

Michael Dunthorn, programs coordinator with Knoxville’s Office on Homelessness, pointing out the creation of the “day space” happened right around the start of winter. Nearby agencies responding to this weather issue by allowing as many people willing to come inside as they possibly can. That could have had some impacts on how many people the city saw using the “day space.” 

Regardless, project leaders feel it’s been successful in its first few months of operation. 

“We’re seeing people come in and use it,” Dunthorn said. “And we are seeing, particularly the social workers reaching people who had not been reached very well before. So yeah, we’re seeing what we’re hoping to get out of it, which again is moving people off of the streets.” 

The agency leading the charge in that effort – Volunteer Ministry Center (VMC).  

They started a street outreach program in September 2018, coinciding with the city’s efforts to tackle homelessness. Two VMC street outreach social workers focus their time, day-in and day-out, on the urban areas of Knoxville, including the “day space” under the I-40 bridge at Broadway. 

Since the last quarter of 2018, VMC says those social workers engaged with 270 people on the streets, and were able to get 25 of them have enrolled in case management programs, which connects them with an agency that helps them find permanent housing. 

“It’s about the people who now are engaged and who are moving towards permanent housing, are moving to a much better outcome for their lives,” says CEO of Volunteer Ministry Center, Bruce Spangler. “For 25 people to make that progress is truly something to celebrate. What about the other 245 people – I would hope for a better outcome. What we will learn by being out there is how can we better address that other 245.” 

One of those that have accepted the help of outreach agencies is a man named William Cox, who is now living in his own home after spending decades on the streets. 

It may be hard to imagine, living without a roof over our heads, no security, little to no access to basic amenities – for William, it was his reality for decades. 

For William Cox, one of his most prized possessions is his set of keys. Keys that unlock more than just the door to his new apartment, but unlocked a brand new life for him. 

“It’s heaven because you are in a safe zone now. Nobody can ever hurt you no more,” says William. 

But it hadn’t always been like that. In fact, life was pretty tough for William. At the end of 2018, he moved into an apartment, but for years before that, he didn’t even have a home. 

“It wasn’t something that I wanted. I didn’t plan this. I got out of prison, 14 years ago in 2004, and came out on the streets,” he said.

A vehicular homicide charge, he said, landed him behind bars in 2000. He was stuck on the streets after serving his time, but it was a lifestyle he lived off and on, since the age of 13.

“This life is dangerous, it’s not living, it’s dead,” says William of homelessness. “I’ve been beat down out here. I’ve been raped. I’ve been kidnapped. It traumatized me to the point to where I didn’t trust nobody ever again.”

But it seems he did learn to trust, even for a brief moment a few months ago, trusting two street outreach social workers, who found him and offered him an escape – helping him get connected to permanent housing. 

“The first night I’m there, I’m like, ‘Open up the door, bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, living room.’ I’m home! I’m home! This is my home!”

William has been living in his apartment for 4 months now, celebrating milestones that many of us often take for granted; cooking on his stove, baking bread in the oven – not having to cook on an open fire outside. 

He is making it clear, though, that he doesn’t forget where he came from. Which is why he’s made a promise to encourage others in similar situations – spreading a message of inspiration and hope. 

“I might be off the streets but I know what you’re going through, because I’ve been there. Don’t give up, because nobody gave up on me.”

Apart from the direct outreach with the stationed VMC social workers, Knoxville Police Department officers are trained to aid those experiencing homelessness; plus, the city also provides a list of resources, visit the Knoxville-Knox County Coalition for the Homeless website: Select the tab, “Looking for Homeless Assistance.”

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