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Grassroots Aid Efforts in Knoxville Grow as Coronavirus Shutdowns Extend

Claire Heddles

From the national down to the local level, officials say support is coming to workers who have been hurt by the economic fallout of COVID-19. But that money isn’t in people’s pockets yet, and some Knoxvillians are taking it upon themselves to help fill the gaps.

It’s eerily empty in Knoxville's Old City District these days. In what is normally a bustling area, there is now only construction and a few restaurant employees preparing takeout and delivery orders. James Gullett is one of them. He's a line cook at Barley’s, just off Central Avenue. But he's no longer working his second job at another restaurant. He has less income and looming bills, and federal stimulus checks are still at least three weeks away

"That thousand dollars is really, really going to save me personally," Gullett said, "I’m good until that happens, kind of. But there are a lot of people who immediately lost jobs."

Gullett is also a part of a group called the Service Industry Coalition Knoxville. In March, they started a mutual aid fund for restaurant workers. When they launched the fundraiser on GoFundMe, Gullett said he thought they'd be laughed at. Instead, the coalition raised more than $13,000. He said he's been shocked every day. 

"A lot of times you kind of feel invisible in the world of the restaurant. We’re put off to the side for customers and that’s to be expected, that’s what we’re doing," he said. "But it’s nice to know that we’re not actually that invisible and people do notice us. I think that’s probably the biggest shake-up for me that’s made me feel awesome."

Gullett explained they’ll be distributing the donated funds to workers that ask for it, on a first-come-first-serve basis, $100 per person.

"We don’t want a lot of red tape and stuff for people who need aid to get it," he said. 

This aid model isn’t new to Knoxville. Local organizer Caroline Rowcliffe says grassroots efforts of people helping each other have a long history in the South.  

"It’s no strings attached. You understand that it’s the system, not the people suffering under it, that creates the poverty crisis and vulnerability," Rowcliffe said. "There’s transparency in that work and there’s a lot of political education along mutual aid."

Rowcliffe is a part of a group called First Aid Collective Knox, which started with the goal of harm reduction through safe needle exchanges. Since COVID-19, the group has organized a range of projects, including an online form to connect people in need with those who have resources in their neighborhoods. Rowcliffe sees mutual aid as distinct because it centers on the belief that needs are created by structural failures, not individual ones.

"We're all in this, we all need to work together in this," Rowcliffe said. "It's all about collaborative decision-making and collaborative long-term commitments to provide aid to those that the system fails."

Community-led efforts can also spread faster than other types of resources on social media. The cook at Barley's, James Gullett, says he thinks people trusted the fund he helped set up because so many donors knew the person sharing it.

Freelance photographer Bruce McCamish saw a different need through social media. A few weeks ago, he came across a Facebook post from a friend who was asked by an elderly couple in a grocery store parking lot if she would do their shopping for them. That inspired him to create Delivery Assist 865. The Facebook group helps people buy groceries and shuttles meals from local businesses to childcare agencies.

"My business is down about 70 percent, which I’m really blessed that it is because I’ve been able to put a lot of focus and time in this group," McCamish said. 

He added that his volunteers are practicing social distancing during deliveries by leaving groceries on driveways, and only communicating through phones. But he thinks the newly created group can fill a vital, new need in the community.

"To know that we have this small army of people that are not only willing to deliver groceries but to do other things for people it’s sweet, it’s love, it's beautiful and it’s really the way it should be," McCamish said. 

These are just three of the ways people are meeting needs during this unusual time. Details on other local resources are available from WUOT News, and information on applying for unemployment is available through Tennessee's Department of Labor.