KNOX COUNTY, Tenn. — Homeless camps have been in the city of Knoxville for decades, but as the population grows, more camps have been seen outside city limits in the county, far away from resources designed to help break the cycle of homelessness.
“I am not insensitive to their situation. Inside the city there are multiple options for housing, food and clothing assistance,” Knox County Sheriff Tom Spangler said. “KARM, the Salvation Army, Volunteer Ministries and other faith-based organizations can better help those who are homeless into permanent employment and housing.”
At last count in 2020, there were 701 people reported as "literally homeless" in the city of Knoxville and Knox County. Area non-profits served 1,943 unsheltered homeless that year, according to the Knox HMIS (Homeless Services in Knoxville/ Knox County, Tennessee) 2020 Annual Report.
Unsheltered homeless include those living in a public space, car, abandoned building or in a tent/camp.
“The people living in camps has not subsided, and it's only continued to grow, along with all the unfortunate illegal behavior that goes along with that,” Burt Rosen said, CEO of Knox Area Rescue Ministries.
Rosen’s office on North Gay Street is just two blocks away from Cooper Street under the Interstate 40 bridge, home to Knoxville’s largest known tent city.
“The camp that's on Cooper is not a new camp and it may be new people that are in there, but this is least the fourth or fifth version of it that I've seen if this just in the last year,” Rosen added.
The city of Knoxville gives at least 72 hours notice before they clean up any camp and connect them with nearby services such as KARM and the Salvation Army, but many of them do not take that help.
Instead, they pick up their things and find a new place to camp.
Spangler claims the homeless are moving into his jurisdiction outside city limits, posing safety concerns for residents, businesses, and places of worship.
A new camp of concern is in the marshland east of the Turkey Creek Shopping Center. 10News witnessed deputies looking through the camp on Monday, February 28, 2022.
Spangler added that camps are where many homeless people hide who have committed crimes.
“If someone is trying to avoid being served a warrant, and that is why they are living in a camp either inside or outside the city, they need to understand that is temporary,” Spangler said. “At some point, it will be discovered. It is better to just turn yourself in. That would be the first step in making progress toward a better life.”
Rosen said the number of camps has grown everywhere, not just in the county, despite Spangler’s claims of city to county migration. However, both parties agree that the homeless population should be closer to city resources.
Rosen extended the invite from Karm, providing a place to sleep, eat and hope for a better life – which he said is something nearly impossible to find under a bridge downtown or in the woods next to a swamp.
“Give it a chance. If you've tried it before, try it again,” Rosen added. “It's been a difficult year for so many people and we really want to see you enjoy all that life has to offer. We know that there's more to life than living in a camp.”
Rosen said he believes homelessness is a problem that can be solved but will take more than outreach from local non-profits.
The KARM CEO is calling on city, county, state government and local law enforcement to find a comprehensive solution together.