The surface of his desk and side tables are filled with carefully balanced piles of manila envelopes and stapled information packets. The bookshelves that line the walls overflow with literature about philosophy, law and data collection. Dr. Roger Nooe rifles through the stacks, brow furrowed, in search of data compilations that he has gathered over the years.
In the early 1980s, Nooe, currently the director of social services for the Knox County Public Defenders Office, realized that there was a major issue in Knoxville that was going unaddressed. The homeless population was steadily increasing, and city had turned its back on the local piles of tattered clothes and blankets—also known as human beings.
In 1985, Nooe assembled a team to walk the specific parts of Knoxville known as homeless hotspots and survey the people they came across. After conducting this study bi-annually for 20 years, Nooe created the Home Management Information System, a web database containing all the names of the people he surveyed. Today, the system contains information from 32,000 people, which has been a great asset in developing a plan of action.
Nooe said that when people think of a homeless person, their minds often wander to a large city dotted with scraggly men in dirt-stained gray hoodies, leaning up against brick walls, demanding the pocket change of passersby. However, this wildly inaccurate image only applies to a small percentage of the homeless population. According to Nooe, there are three specific types of homelessness—acute, episodic and chronic.
The acutely homeless fill the largest percentage of the homeless population. Some sort of trauma, such as the loss of a home to a fire, divorce or job loss, triggers these situations of homelessness. Though the acutely homeless make up the largest percentage, these people are without homes for the shortest period of time.
Next are those who are experience homelessness in episodes. These people often receive some kind of disability stipend from the government, or they have seasonal jobs. The episodically homeless group is often referred to as the “couch population.” While they do not have homes of their own, members of the couch population are likely to stay with a friend or family member during their financial valleys.
The smallest classification group is the chronic homeless, which are people who have been homeless for over a year, or four times in the last three years. Members of this group often have some sort of disability, such as mental illness, a physical impairment or a substance abuse problem. Though it comprises the smallest percentage, Nooe says that the entire homeless population is often wrongly assigned the image of the chronic homeless because they are the most visible to the public.
“These are the people you see out on the street picking up cans, or over in the university area,” Nooe said. “These are usually the ones that the town complains about most frequently.”
Students are quite aware of the chronic homeless population around UT campus, mostly because they have experienced heckling. Drew Burker, a political science major, said that the best way to prevent this is to place the burden on another city’s shoulders.
“I think the homeless rate is excessive in Knoxville, especially given its population,” Burker said. “Some of the homeless are aggressive toward students, and I think that the city should relocate them.”
This “not in my backyard” attitude, common around Knoxville, is a major contributor to the existing trends in local homelessness.
The Power of Renovation
Just five years ago, an abandoned elementary school in South Knoxville stood on an overgrown corner lot, unused and uncared for; the broken windows and surrounding rusted fence an eyesore in the community. What was once Flenniken Elementary School, where children played four square at recess and little boys pulled at girls’ pigtails in math class, had become a local attraction for the curious and bored teenager undaunted by a privacy fence.
“It was a fleabag trap. It had boarded up windows and a chain link fence all the way around it,” Nooe said. “When you start trying to rehabilitate the neighborhood, even though these were dilapidated, crime infested places, people start getting riled up.”
Nooe believes in the relationship between urban renewal and low-income housing. In 2011, Flenniken Landing opened in Knoxville. According to the facility’s website, the abandoned elementary school was renovated into low-income apartments, providing 48 living spaces for those classified as at-risk for homelessness. A year prior to this was the opening of Minvilla Manor, which contains 57 apartments that serve the same purpose.
Nooe said that in addition to more permanent low-income housing, local ministries like Knox Area Rescue Ministries and Family Promise Church provide temporary lodging for many homeless families.
Maggie Manning, a volunteer at Family Promise, said that the cyclical nature of the program is often hard on families. During the day, the children receive care or attend school while their parents are encouraged to search for employment.
“They stayed overnight in a different church every week. They kept their belongings in suitcases that could be moved from place to place,” Manning said. “It was hard on the kids.”
Family Promise is a prime example of progress in community involvement and a commitment to change the existing state of homelessness in Knoxville, but are fragmented ministries enough? Nooe does not believe so; he said that the only way for a major shift in trends to occur is for local ministries and organizations to unite their individual efforts.
It Takes a Village
“Solving homelessness is a community challenge,” Nooe said.
“It isn’t going to be solved by ministries and social services alone. It really takes people to get involved and care about other people.”
The simple outreach and full support of the community is the key to reducing the numbers of the homeless in Knoxville, according to Nooe. Until the “not in my backyard” attitude is diminished, a functioning partnership between the Knoxville community and the homeless will remain impossible to attain.
Nooe has spoken to a number of people who have faced homelessness and beaten it. He often makes it a point to ask them about the deciding factor in their situations.
The response he most often receives? “Somebody believed in me.”