‘It takes a community:’ Knoxville’s KARM shelter offers hope for downtrodden
By Joel Davis | (firstname.lastname@example.org)
KNOXVILLE — On North Broadway in Knoxville, just beyond the overpass where hard-faced people gather in the shade — those whom passers-by name as the homeless, the rootless, the vagrants of the city — there is a refuge not quite hidden behind anonymous walls.
Behind those walls, Knoxville Area Rescue Ministries has been serving as a safe place for the homeless and those in need for decades, and it’s for that shelter that homeless Blount Countians often travel northward, looking for a safe place to sleep.
KARM and its efforts to move beyond the idea of a shelter as simply a place to warehouse the homeless serve as a counterpoint to discussions on how to deal with Blount County’s growing homeless problem — conversations in which shelters are not seen as the right tool for Blount County.
Once past the front doors of KARM, in the institutional corridors reminiscent of so many old schools and public buildings, people come and go, some busy with purpose, some not. The atmosphere is quiet. The halls are clean and well-lighted. There is something like peace in the air.
Angie Hatcher Sledge, KARM vice president of development, stands in the hallway near the front desk, sunlight streaming in through the glass doors leading to a courtyard. Her voice is firm; her smile, welcoming.
“We believe that God did not make any junk,” she said. “No one is meant to be thrown away.”
The majority of the people whom KARM serves is not the chronically homeless, the people always seen on the streets, who many in the public see as the embodiment of what it means to be homeless.
Make no mistake, the chronically homeless do exist, though, and absorb a disproportionate amount of resources, according to the City of Knoxville’s own 10-year plan to address homelessness.
“There is actually some very good data research on that,” Sledge said. “Ten percent of the homeless use more than 50 percent of the services. The people who come in and have less complex problems — who need guidance, who need job training, whose recovery won’t take as long — it’s harder for them to get help because the chronic homeless can suck up all the resources and time. That’s what happens if you’re not careful. That’s where KARM comes in. It is uniquely designed to help those folks who would otherwise be falling through the cracks.”
Not ‘three hots and a cot’
KARM is a Christian ministry, which turns nobody away, forces no religious observances on a captive audience looking for a safe place to sleep. It is more than a shelter, though. It is a place where the homeless can begin picking apart the knotted tangle of problems that keep them on the streets.
“You can be assured that we are anything but just ‘three hots and a cot,’” Sledge said.
Burt Rosen, KARM president and CEO, says the most common phrase he hears from people who visit the ministry or learn about its extensive list of services is “I had no idea.”
“Lives are changed here and no one who ever walks in, walks out the same,” Rosen says. “They begin to see hope. When you drive by that’s not what you see.”
“We have an environment that encourages improvement and forward movement,” Sledge said. “If you’re comfortable with the status quo and comfortable with being on the street, you will not be comfortable within our doors very long. The environment here is designed to move people forward so that those who can get off the street have the resources available to do so.
“It’s all done in the context of our Christian environment, it is the environment to go forward with the confidence of knowing you are a child of God, which is where our self-worth comes from.”
Shelter with resources
Kathi Parkins, executive director of Family Promise of Blount County, is involved the ongoing development of a 10-year plan to address the issue of homelessness in Blount County. She said that discussions led to the consensus that just building a plain homeless shelter would not meet local needs.
“Research shows that a housing-first model is the most successful,” Parkins said. “Housing-first means you put people in housing, and then you wrap services around them. Putting people in a shelter is a Band-Aid unless you can offer some pretty intensive case management services, which includes mental health, childcare, transportation, all sort of other things.”
KARM has gone far beyond the stereotypical warehouse approach for dealing with the homeless population. It provides immediate emergency shelter for families but then works with other agencies to find additional resources or housing.
The first stop once a person seeking aid enters KARM is its Crossroads Welcome Center, which serves the homeless during the day. It is a place where someone can find a restroom, use computers, make phone calls, or stow belongings. It’s also a place where they can receive an ID, which will be their passport to accessing other important services in the city.
“This is where it all begins,” Sledge said. “It is a way to fast-track you into services rather than having to walk all over the city.”
The ministry serves three meals a day, 365 days per year, to the poor and homeless. It houses about 400 people each night and provides almost 1,000 meals daily.
Volunteers work throughout the KARM facility, sweeping floors, doing laundry, cooking meals. They are the same people who use the ministry’s services.
“They have made the decision to get off that street,” Sledge said. “A lot of times they will come in to KARM and say, ‘Give me something to do, anything to keep me from going back out there.’”
Instead of just warehousing the homeless, KARM works to help them bridge the gap to self-sufficiency, Sledge said. “We are identifying the people who are capable of moving on,” she said.
LaunchPoint is a four-week program designed to help homeless men and women develop realistic goals to end their homelessness that can be implemented in manageable steps. “It’s about building a life plan,” Sledge said.
KARM will soon open its newly redesigned third floor as transitional housing for graduates of LaunchPoint program. It is designed in a dormitory format to be a new, but temporary, step between the homeless shelter floor and personal housing with the capacity for 44 residents.
The transitional floor includes a commons area for meetings and study. It will provide residents safe, supportive shelter and a sense of community with others in similar situations as they undergo job training, seek employment and take other necessary steps to regain private housing and employment.
“Transitional housing provides the environment for a person to execute God’s plan for their life,” Rosen said. “This floor fills the gap between homelessness and a private home, allowing the person to take the deliberate steps needed to move forward. The combination of LaunchPoint and transitional housing dramatically increases the likelihood of long-term success.”
KARM offers job training, as well.
Abundant Life Kitchen is a food service training program that teaches skills that are necessary for working in a commercial kitchen. Clean Start provides commercial cleaning, janitorial and housekeeping training. The 13 KARM Thrift Stores give clients training for careers in customer service and retail management.
Knox Area Rescue Ministries was formally established in 1960 by five local pastors under the original organizational name Knoxville Union Rescue Mission to minister to the homeless. KARM also opened Serenity Shelter in 1985 to serve victims of domestic violence. Its New Life Inn was established in 1997 in response to the growing number of homeless one- and two-parent families.
The majority of KARM’s funding is from individual donations. KARM is not a United Way agency, nor does it receive any direct federal or state funding. This year, KARM has been awarded a combined total of $30,000 from both the City of Knoxville and Knox County. This funding is directed to Crossroads Welcome Center.
“Our folks are extremely sick,” Sledge said. “We have a lot of mental issues and a lot of physical issues.”
Everyone is treated the same, though, once they pass through the doors of KARM, Sledge said. “One of the most important things we can do for someone is to be ... friendly and have respect.”
KARM takes the safety of its clients very seriously, she said. “No one is allowed to be here who does not follow the rules and who does not give respect.”
The ministry does not allow anyone who displays dangerous or inappropriate behavior to stay at its facility. Anyone who displays dangerous or inappropriate behavior is reported to law enforcement. Through the intake process, KARM also screens for previous convictions and does not allow anyone to stay who has been convicted of violent crimes or is a registered sex offender.
The ministry works closely with other social service organizations to help the homeless, Sledge said.
“It takes a community. We’re not here to do it all on our own.”