Hayes Hickman and JJ Stambaugh, and the late Clay Owen, give you a long, deep look into the issue of homelessness, its costs, and its other implications. Here’s a roundup of the series.
Mental illness in jail
This piece cracks open the issue of mental illness among people who have run-ins with the law. The Knox County jail is the largest provider of mental healthcare in the County. A lot of people in jail are mentally ill. A lot of them are homeless. Many are chronically homeless. Sheriff JJ Jones is an advocate of permanent supportive housing.
Providing the chronically homeless with supportive housing that ensures they receive consistent health care would end up saving lots of money in the long run, [Sheriff Jones] said, and would also allow society to stop treating people with health problems as criminals.
Some people believe that the Ten-Year Plan advocates for building more “homeless shelters.” Others believe that we want to simply place disabled homeless people in apartments somewhere, house them “on their own” with inadequate supervision and support. Sheriff Jones knows what we’re trying to do. Permanent housing with supportive services. That’s what we advocate. Because it works. Because it actually ends homelessness.
We’ve said, since 2005, when the Ten-Year Plan document was first published, that we know we’ll need to build new facilities in our community to serve as permanent supportive housing.
This piece addresses some of the neighborhood response to that need. We have and will continue to open up avenues for dialogue with neighborhood representatives. Two of them have, as of December 2008, sat on our Advisory Board, and we’ve begun to develop good relationships with others. We’ll continue to do that, and our promise is to continue to develop an open and candid way of communicating with the public.
Collaboration, not competition
For the first time, the many local nonprofit agencies who serve the homeless are working together. Gone are the days when they competed with one another for funding and offered the same basic services to the same people, a strategy that was good at keeping the homeless alive but failed miserably when it came to giving them the kind of long-term help they needed to get on their feet. Each agency now has a designated function under the 10-Year Plan, which enables each of them to specialize in certain areas.
KNS also covered, back in November of 2008, a new program at KARM that brings agencies together in one place. That article focused on the Crossroads Welcome Center, which brings agencies together in one physical space to help people who are experiencing homelessness gain access to services and ultimately to housing.
A homeless person’s perspective: Seeking a normal life
Willie Earl Walker is the subject of this article. He’s 59, been in and out of prison, and is working to overcome his past, which has been influenced by his issues with addiction. He’s involved in programs offered at VMC’s day room. Lisa Wells, who manages the day room, gives Walker credit for being a good influence on younger people there, and she is hopeful for his future.
“With the proper case management, anybody can live anywhere,” said Wells, who encourages anyone to visit VMC and leave with a greater perspective. “People are people, no matter what situation they’re in. Nothing’s a guarantee. But as long as we have the proper people, and people willing to work with our clients, why not? Why not try to make an impact?”
What happened to the mental institution?
Dr. Clif Tennison is the main subject of this piece. Dr. Tennison says, “We closed down the hospitals and (the patients) ended up in the jails.”
Many people, when they learn that many people who are chronically homeless are mentally ill, ask why we don’t “reopen” Lakeshore. Dr. Tennison answers that question.
The policy initiative that led to the current crisis — called de-institutionalization — began in the 1960s as a response to endemic problems in mental hospitals, Tennison explained. Officials were working under the incorrect assumption that then-new drugs would cure psychoses, and they also were dealing with both skyrocketing costs and allegations of inhumane treatment. Their response was to all but shut down the system of mental asylums that housed the country’s mentally ill, a mistake that’s been compounded by subsequent budget cuts for public mental health care. In Knoxville, for instance, Lakeshore Hospital went from being a 2,000-bed asylum to a facility that today has less than 200 beds, he said.
That means we have neighbors now who suffer from mental illness. They often end up homeless. You can understand how that would happen. As Dr. Tennison points out, “You’re not wrong, you’re not evil because you’re uncomfortable around mentally ill homeless,” he said. “So are we. It’s horribly uncomfortable, and sometimes it’s scary. The only thing that’s wrong is making them feel hopeless.”
So, now what?
Bottom line: we need to change the way we think about homelessness. It’s a degrading, demeaning, destructive social ill, and what we do with it now, with the best of intentions, sometimes inadvertently serves to prolong it. We need to end homelessness as we know it, and to do that, we need to build more permanent supportive housing. We need to operate it with excellence, in appropriate locations throughout our community.
What Tennison wants is to see the joint city-county 10-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness implemented. If that happens, he said, the existence of hundreds of supportive housing units will give many of the most seriously ill people a chance at resuming something close to a normal life through aggressive community treatment programs. “It’s not perfect, but it’s a bigger chunk of people that you’re going to help,” he said. “We know exactly what to do. We now know how to treat them.”
That means that some disabled people who are leaving homelessness will be somebody’s neighbors. If we were into sugarcoating tough realities, we’d say that ending homelessness will be easy, and that it’s guaranteed to work every time. We’re not saying that. This is a problem that belongs to our whole community, and we’ll have to work hard to solve it.
We’re not going to sugarcoat anything about that. Here’s the straightup: most of these folks will be very good neighbors. That’s what they will be committed to being. They’ll have the support they need to help them make it happen. That’s the way it works for the majority of permanent supportive housing. Everywhere it’s done.
We appreciate the coverage the Sentinel is giving to issues that surround the meta-issue of homelessness. We hope you’ll take advantage of their work to bring these things into the light, that you’ll take the opportunity to understand better what’s going on and how some change could do our community a lot of good.
Mostly, we hope you’ll choose to be part of the solution, that you’ll embrace our neighbors who have chosen to leave the streets, get the help they need to become stabilized and deal responsibly with their issues, and participate as fully as they can in our community.