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Newly Homeless in New Places: A Crisis in Housing, Addiction, and COVID-19

Heather Duncan

Stephanie McBrayer doesn’t fit the homeless stereotype. For five years she rented the same house while running a housecleaning business and caring for her adult son, who has special needs.

But then a year ago her landlord, who she says was struggling with opioid addiction, evicted her with five days’ notice so he could sell the house. Without a lease, McBrayer wasn’t protected by the moratorium on evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID shutdowns had also ended her son’s daytime support, so McBrayer had to stop working. The two started sleeping in their car in West Knoxville, near her son’s part-time job at Publix. McBrayer didn’t feel she could use traditional shelters that would require her son, who has the emotional development of a 10-year-old, to be housed with large groups of adult men.

Their situation illustrates many of the factors that pushed people into homelessness over the last 18 months: Job changes related to the pandemic, the ongoing opioid crisis, and a record housing shortage.

McBrayer still had her car, but blankets and a cooler in the backseat don’t make a home.

“It’s hard to find somewhere you feel safe,” she said. “That’s what broke my heart. There’s nights I’d look over -- imagine having a child or special needs. What do you do as far as the restroom, if your gas is low, how do you stay warm?”

As in other cities, many of Knoxville’s homeless struggle with addiction and mental illness, especially since the opioid epidemic. But in the last few years, a more diverse group of people have lost shelter.

Those who serve the homeless say they are seeing more homeless families, seniors, young adults under age 22, people who have never been homeless before, and working homeless. Misty Goodwin, director of social services at the Knoxville-Knox County Community Action Committee, says the agency usually helps about 200 homeless households find permanent housing annually. This year, it’s been more than 300 already.

“The majority of our families are first-time homeless, and seniors,” Goodwin said. “We serve chronically homeless. But the higher number are those that are not.”

Several of the largest local affordable housing complexes for seniors were closed for renovation last year, reducing options for a population vulnerable to COVID-19, Goodwin says.

Across the board, demand is so high that CAC now takes almost twice as long as the old 60-day average to find its clients permanent affordable housing. Although some emergency housing vouchers have become available, few landlords will take them. CAC is working with United Way to offer landlords incentives, Goodwin said.

In the meantime, another family living in its car seeks help from CAC almost every day. Many were doubling up with friends or family until pandemic quarantines made that too burdensome, Goodwin said.

Family Promise is one of the only programs in Knoxville for families with children. It’s the sole program that allows single fathers to stay with their kids or teenage sons to stay with a single mom. Parents are often afraid to seek help because they fear their homelessness alone will cause them to lose custody of their children, said Family Promise director John-Mark Brown.

He said demand for Family Promise placements increased even as the COVID-19 pandemic reduced the number of families the organization could help. Family Promise typically housed four families at a time, rotating them among local churches as it helped them find housing. When COVID hit, many participating churches closed. Since then, Family Promise has been able to serve only two families at once, using hotels. It has sheltered about 20 families so far this year, less than half the normal number.

In July of 2020, Family Promise launched a prevention and diversion program that has helped more than 50 families avoid homelessness through rental assistance, utility payments or rapid rehousing, Brown says.

“The difficult component is realizing... that just a studio in ‘most affordable’ zip code of Knoxville would be $750,” he said. “That’s no bedrooms. That’s just one sink, toilet, shower. I don’t think anyone would be inclined to raise one, two or three children in that space.”

Federal COVID relief funds funneled through the county have helped CAC provide $10.8 million in rental assistance to more than 3,500 households, Goodwin said.

CAC also began offering emergency shelter assistance. Since last December, the City of Knoxville shifted funds so CAC could pay for about 75 hotel rooms at a time for seniors, youth and families with children. The funds gradually increased from $100,000 to more than $1 million to try to keep current clients off the street through this winter, Goodwin said.

Although an eviction moratorium during the pandemic was supposed to help struggling renters, Goodwin says some landlords ignored or skirted it. “There have been situations where families that were struggling and were laid off during the pandemic, were living in places where they couldn’t pay the rent,” she said. “They didn’t necessarily get connected to rental assistance quickly, and landlords have decided to not renew leases as sort of the loophole in getting out of keeping people housed.”

Rental prices in Knoxville are up 30 percent over a year ago, according to the Knoxville Area Association of Realtors.

“Landlords know that they can get more for rent and they are doing that,” Goodwin said. As a result, working full time is not enough. “It’s quite amazing how many people that are out there in the camps are actually working,” she said. “We get referrals frequently from West Knox and that area, where people are camped out there because they’re working out there.”

As an increasing number of homeless people camp outside the city, Goodwin says she anticipates receiving more funding from Knox County. The county is hiring its first two homeless outreach workers.

The Cedar Bluff area has a growing homeless population, many of whom work nearby. Many newly homeless seniors, families and working adults avoid traditional shelters in the Mission District, which may feel unsafe, don’t offer flexible hours or connect to public transit for night workers, and don’t allow couples and families to stay together. Most also require sobriety.

A few years ago, homeless people living in their cars started coming regularly to Cokesbury Church near Pellissippi Parkway seeking help.

“One of the first folks that we met that really opened our eyes was working at the IHOP on Lovell Road,” said Kate McIlwain, church outreach coordinator. “Working full time, he was working a night shift because it was higher pay, and he could sleep during the daytime and could feel a little safer. He was such a hard worker he got promoted to night shift manager. But he was living in a tent on Lovell Road, among all of our McMansions out here in West Knoxville.” The stress became too much, and he eventually relapsed into addiction, losing many of the gains he had made, McIlwain said.

At first, Cokesbury provided food and gas cards so the needy could get to the Mission district for services. But homeless neighbors just kept coming. In the middle of the pandemic, the church opened a day community center called Fig Tree.

“The origins of Fig Tree are us discovering this hidden population of folks living in their cars in West Knoxville and choosing not to be in the Mission district because of safety issues and parking issues. Or they might be working west, but they need resources,” McIlwain said. “It costs $13 or $14 to take a shower at a travel center -- just those bare necessities to try to be clean and have dignity and go to work.”

In her car, McBrayer slept fitfully as she tried to stay alert to danger and watch out for her son. In the morning, she’d drive to a gas station on Lovell Road so her son could use the bathroom and change into his work uniform.

There were other challenges. “Where do you park that you’re not run off? We were able to do hotels here and there, but it’s costly,” McBrayer said. She frequently saw people carrying backpacks and tents as they left the Cedar Bluff Motel 6.

Goodwin says the working poor are often pushed out of hotels on Vols football game weekends, when prices shoot up. In West Knox County, those without cars tend to set up alone in the woods rather than congregating in camps.

“One of the things that’s said to the campers is: ‘Find a place to be where we can’t see you.’ And so they do,” Goodwin said.

Fig Tree provides the homeless with free private showers, laundry, computer access, mail services, meals and case management. McIlwain says about 30 people use these services daily.

Fig Tree connected McBrayer with safe overnight parking and a CAC case worker who helped her secure a housing voucher in November. A few days after she and her son moved into an apartment, their car broke down. Now McBrayer is hoping the church can help her pay for repairs so she can get back to work. But at least she no longer relies on the car for warmth as the nights dip below freezing.

It took 13 months for McBrayer to find housing -- and that was considered a short wait. She received higher priority because she has a disabled dependent. When McIlwain calls around for clients trying to find private affordable housing, she encounters three-year waiting lists.

“The hard thing is, you see people check all the boxes you’re supposed to do to achieve the American dream... but it’s still not enough to live,” McIlwain said. “Speaking of West Knox in particular, the folks that are flipping our pancakes and caring for your aging parents in nursing homes are not making enough to live in our community.”

As an example, she shared the story of a single mom of five who earned her GED, then a nursing degree, and found a full-time job at a hospital. However, until she passes her nursing certification test, the job pays only $10 an hour. Cokesbury helped the family into an apartment temporarily, but the rent is not sustainable, McIlwain said.

Fig Tree emphasizes that, working or not, the homeless deserve fellowship and respect like anyone else. One of its goals is simply to create meaningful connections for those isolated in cars or tents, McIlwain said.

Kenneth Lechner has been living in his minivan since COVID ended his previous job, which included housing. He has been visiting Fig Tree for the last three months. “It’s like a little community,” he said. “It’s a peace of mind you can’t find out there on the streets.”

Lechner works a West Knoxville warehouse job that pays $15 an hour, but it’s not enough for him to feel stable enough to pay first and last month’s rent to secure an apartment.

COVID-19 and the housing crunch may be temporary, but providers say the need for more local homeless services is permanent.

Goodwin notes that the City of Knoxville has made a significant investment in creating affordable housing: $16.6 million so far. “We have seen some of the fruit of that labor just in the last few months,” Goodwin said.

City affordable housing funds contributed to Southside Flats and Young High Flats in South Knoxville, the Flats at Pond Gap near Bearden, and Moss Grove Apartments in Cedar Bluff. Burlington Commons on Holston Drive is also coming online.

“This past year we’ve been able to house a lot of folks very quickly because those units have opened up,” Goodwin said. “The downside is: Now those units are full.”

More is on the way. Mayor Indya Kincannon’s 2021-2022 budget established a Knoxville Affordable Housing Fund, with a commitment to spend $50 million over the next decade.

Still, that’s not a solution for someone with nowhere to sleep tonight. Brown and others say Knoxville needs more overnight shelters for families and individuals, regardless of whether they struggle with addiction.

“We say that we’re a housing first city, but ... in reality what we’re saying is get clean and sober, get a job, then we can get you housed. That is just virtually impossible,” McIlwain said.

Brown agreed the city urgently needs more shelters that don’t require sobriety before someone can get warm.

“We are constantly trying to make sure the conversation becomes: How can living in Knoxville be affordable for everyone? And how does that start with caring for folks when they have nowhere else to go?” Brown said.