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Knoxville leaders continue efforts to reduce homelessness in area

A roundtable group led by Mayor Kincannon says homelessness continues to grow. Emergency shelters are seeing more people alongside a spike in panhandling.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn — In the past year, the city of Knoxville said it spent $5 million to address homelessness in the city as the number of people on the streets continues to rise.

A total of $1 million came from local tax dollars. In a quarterly roundtable Monday, Mayor Indya Kincannon said homelessness in Knoxville continues to grow. Emergency shelters are seeing more people as more request services.

In the beginning of pandemic, the number of homeless people getting help at shelters had seen a decline -- but officials said the decline in people seeking services was actually masking the true number of people experiencing homelessness. City of Knoxville Homeless Program Coordinator Michael Dunthorn said that’s likely because of COVID-19. 

“With more folks opting to stay outside -- that continued for a good while and now we’re starting to see that climb back,” he said.

At first glance it looks like the total number of homeless people in the area is trending upward, however, Dunthorn said it’s not happening quite as rapidly as recent service utilization numbers suggest. 

“The total of homeless folks is not creeping up too fast. I think what we’re starting to see is more folks use shelter and services again,” he said.

The community continues to raise concerns about living in areas heavily populated by people experiencing homelessness, Dunthorn said. 

“We’re very aware that the problem is there and it’s very difficult, but I think it’s important for folks to understand that there’s a huge amount of work going on in our community to address those issues and those needs,” he said.

There are several contributing factors to homelessness. Eviction, mental health, and lack of affordable housing to name a few. There are so many individual problems that City Councilwoman Seema Singh said more federal funding is needed to address the underlying issues.

"Right now, the money is stuck. The state refuses to accept it and we need it to help these people,” Singh said.

Using federal dollars to address the individual needs that come with treating addiction and mental health issues would allow more funding toward sustainable living in our homeless population, she said. 

“To me, that is where the bottleneck is,” she said.

Panhandling also remains a community concern -- one that people can help with. Dunthorn said it's best not to give directly to a panhandler, but instead to donate to a community outreach organization like the United Way of Greater Knoxville to help tackle the issue on a broader scale.