Blount will be seeking out its homeless again in January
By Melanie Tucker | (firstname.lastname@example.org)
At the end of January, Blount County had an idea of how many of its residents were calling the insides of their cars home or were crashing on a friends’ couches because the only other choice for residency was a city park, or worse.
Eighty-one people were living in places not meant for habitation — places like tents, outside a retail outlet, in abandoned buildings or under bridges. Sixty-nine had the temporary safety net of being housed in a shelter such as Family Promise or Heaven Sent Home. But an astounding 240 people were classified as precariously housed — meaning they were squatting in apartments of friends or being put up in a hotel for a night or two, bouncing from place to place.
All in a day’s work
The numbers were arrived at during the annual Point-in-Time Count which is required by the federal government if a community is seeking federal funds to help eliminate the problem.
Blount County established a Community Homeless Coalition back in early 2011 to begin working on a plan to go out in a designated 24-hour period and uncover and document its homeless population. The committee included representatives from United Way, social services agencies like Child and Family Tennessee, shelters, churches and Maryville College.
Committee members knew the homeless number for 2012 would definitely be higher than what was reported in 2011 in Blount, because more work was done in advance to get counting teams into place. But some admitted even they were shocked when the final tab came in. The 2011 count was 72 homeless in Blount County. This time it was almost 400.
“Those of us who were close to it always knew the number was a lot higher than what had been reported previously,” said Marianne Ferris, a member of that committee. “And we knew the reason was we didn’t have the manpower to get out there and uncover it. We kind of knew that the precariously housed number was going to be high, but we were just blown away by the real numbers. They are just tragic.”
Melanie Cordell, executive director of the Tennessee Valley Coalition to End Homelessness, said what Blount County was able to do — orchestrate and implement a great counting plan — is now a model for the state. Other counties are looking at how and what Blount County did. They want to be able to more accurately portray this national tragedy in their towns so they can be eligible for money to fix it.
TVCEH was established as a nonprofit in 2008 to network with other homeless providers to provide mainstream services for the homeless. It serves 12 counties including Anderson, Blount, Campbell, Claiborne, Cocke, Grainger, Hamblen, Jefferson, Loudon, Monroe, Sevier, Union and Knox. There are 10 such coalitions across the state that represent every county.
What’s happened since
A grant for $248,000 is being written by Kathi Parkins at Family Promise of Blount County, the result of the PIT count this past January. She is submitting it later this month and will know in early 2013 if Family Promise gets the money.
The money will be used for permanent, supportive housing.
That’s a direct result of the count. And so is the awareness in Blount County that there are homeless people here. They aren’t the chronically homeless like you see on the streets in Knoxville, Cordell said. They are single women and young children, families where the wage earner has lost his or her job and young couples who have a hard time paying rent with minimum-wage paychecks.
The next PIT count will be conducted on Jan. 24, 2013. Those here in Blount County who participated in the 2012 count have already come up with ways to improve the process. They hope to cover outlying areas like Friendsville and Townsend. Getting more churches involved is another strategy.
“My guess is the numbers will be even higher this time,” Ferris said.
The 50-plus volunteers in the 2012 count went to all-night restaurants, laundromats, food pantries, parking lots of 24-hour retailers, campgrounds and parks. That will be done again this time. Phones were also set up and staffed at United Way for people to call in if they were homeless or housing someone with nowhere else to go.
But some want to know what’s going to be done with these numbers besides them being recorded by the federal government. Now it’s time to go into action, Ferris and Cordell said.
“The count was just a number, and it satisfied Washington that we got a number but that didn’t solve the problem,” Ferris said.
The next step
Cordell recently spoke to a group of commissioners and reported that lack of affordable housing is at the top of the list of reasons for being homeless. That, coupled with lack of employment, is what has added to Blount County’s homeless population.
According to research by TVCEH, 12 percent of the Blount County population lives below the poverty line. That’s 14,393 people.
Parkins did research on the topic of affordable housing while writing the grant. She discovered Blount County has the third-highest rent in the state.
The next step will be the development of a 10-year plan, Cordell said. Some believe Blount County doesn’t need an emergency shelter like those in Knoxville. The greater need is for permanent affordable housing.
“These people did not get homeless overnight,” Ferris said. “To house them for a night doesn’t solve the problem. The answer is for someone to build affordable housing.”
Parkins is proud of what was accomplished in terms of awareness and getting a more accurate count of who’s homeless in this community. It’s young families and women who make up a huge portion of that population. Nearly half are under the age of 25.
Now it’s time to go into action, armed with what has been discovered.
“The time for meeting and talking about it is over,” she said. “It’s time to do something.”