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'Are we doing enough?': Knoxville community leaders hold open conversations on homelessness

Monday saw an open conversation about a tough topic: how to help the growing number of people living on the streets in Knoxville.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Editor's note: The number of people considered literally homeless was overstated in a previous version of this story.  The most recent estimate as of late 2021 was 786 people.

 Members of the Knoxville community had an open conversation about the increasing homeless population in the city. 

The outreach meeting, held at the Tennessee Theater Monday, was led by a woman who lives downtown. Nikki Elliott said she wants to help find a solution, but it's time to look for a new approach.

"When we step out as community members and we just continually hand out food and clothes we're actually really not helping those people. We're really just enabling them to stay on the streets and be comfortable," she said.

"The more we sit and just give out, the more we're really feeding the problem," Elliott said.

For Elliott, helping homeless people has been a longtime goal.

"There's so much negativity with somebody sitting on the sidewalk, but we really don't understand what is going on behind the scenes of that person, what caused them to get to that point," Elliott said.

Elliot said her goal in bringing the community together is to change the public perspective on homelessness.

"A thousand heads are better than one," Elliott said.

At the end of 2021, authorities estimated the homeless count to be about 786.

"You drive in every day and say, ‘Are we doing enough? Is there more to do or is there a different way to do it?’" Major Cameron Henderson, representing the Salvation Army said.

Community leaders said the main contributors to homelessness in Knoxville are a lack of affordable housing and mental health issues.

"Most of the people that we work with come with some type of trauma," Dr. Bruce Spangle, representing the Volunteer Ministry Center, said.

It's a situation the city constitutes as a community issue.

"We have a lot of people complaining. I understand it, I live downtown, I feel the frustrations... I really truly do, but I do want people to understand," he said.

KARM, the Salvation Army and the VMC are trying to pool their resources.

"You can't be healthy without a home, and that's our number one priority," Spangler said.

The best way to combat homelessness, leaders said, is as one entity.

"If we as a community want to give back and help these people, we really need to be teaming up with these nonprofit agencies, letting them, who are professionals, use those outreach programs and build that trust and get these people really understanding that they can get out of this cycle," Elliott said.

The city said connecting homeless people to permanent housing is a priority. The city’s Homeless Coalition reports 700 families were placed into permanent homes in 2021 -- and it wants to keep that trend going.

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