A warm place on a cold night: Knoxville plans low-barrier shelter

By: David Ibata

Every night in Knoxville, Tennessee, just outside the doors of The Salvation Army area command, homeless residents bed down under an interstate highway. For whatever reason, they’ve resisted the idea of sleeping in an emergency shelter.

The Salvation Army is working with the Volunteer Ministry Center of Knoxville to try to get these people in from the cold and on a path toward permanent housing. They are turning a former Family Store into a “low-barrier” shelter. If all goes as planned, the facility will open in December with 40 to 45 beds; the Army will lease it to VMC, which will run it.

“We’re calling it, ‘The Foyer,’” said Gabe Cline, chief clinical services officer with VMC. Inspired by a similar Salvation Army operation in Charlotte, North Carolina, “we will try to engage some of the folks who currently choose to camp outside. It is very much a tool that can increase a person’s ability to get into housing.”

Locals call the stretch of Broadway just north of downtown “The Mission District” because that’s where several missions, like The Salvation Army, offer services to the needy. During the day, 50 to 100 homeless people can be seen walking on the street; at night, many sleep under the I-40 overpass.

Captain Dan Nelson, Knoxville area commander, said Knoxville Area Rescue Ministries operates a large emergency shelter nearby; people can stay overnight but must leave the next morning. The Army currently offers an emergency shelter for women and children who are victims of domestic violence, and a transitional shelter for those working toward permanent housing.

“We are trying to fill a need that really is still bigger than the three of us can meet,” Captain Nelson said. “As for The Salvation Army’s role in the low-barrier shelter, we have a property next door to where the population resides, right next to the overpass. The type of shelter VMC will operate is a stepping-stone for people to move to longer-term housing.”

Cline described a low-barrier shelter as a place where “people would not need to meet a bunch of requirements in order to get in.”

“We know a lot of our folks on the street don’t have identification or the ability to get identification,” she said. “Or, we know that they might not, quite honestly, be able to meet sobriety requirements. These challenges are harder to overcome without the stability of a fixed place to sleep.”

Being small, The Foyer aims to be more inviting. A $388,000 renovation is now underway. The City of Knoxville has taken the lead on funding with other donors that includes churches and individuals.

The former thrift store sales floor is being turned into sleeping quarters. Movable dividers will separate men’s and women’s areas. The space can be subdivided further as needed for particular groups – elderly people, for example, or young people, who form a growing portion of Knoxville’s homeless population. The building also is getting male and female restrooms with high-capacity showers. The Salvation Army will provide snacks or continental breakfast items and beverages. Guests will have to spend the day elsewhere, but VMC’s resource center and day room is only the next block over.

“To access the shelter, you’ll have to have a referral from an outreach case manager,” available at the resource center, Cline said. “It will be understood that though it’s a low barrier to get in, there are some expectations regarding who stays there. … A person will be expected to complete an assessment and get engaged in a housing plan.”

As for those with additional issues, Cline said, “we’ve found that people engage in mental health and substance abuse treatment to a higher degree if the goal is permanent housing. People often are not motivated to seek treatment just for the sake of seeking treatment, but if you make the link that this is really affecting their ability to get housed and stay housed, there’s better success in the treatment.”

Captain Nelson said, “The folks coming into this shelter will be folks looking to move beyond their situation, not just a place to stay for the night. They’re saying, I’m homeless, and I want to be actively moved to not being homeless.”