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'We are labeled the scum of the earth' | The reality of homelessness in Knoxville

There are 1,178 people experiencing homelessness in Knoxville on any given night. That's a 50% increase from the year prior.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — According to data released by Knoxville in late May, there are 1,178 people experiencing homelessness in the city on any given night. That's a 50% increase from the year prior.

In order to better understand the reasons behind the uptick, 10News went on a homeless-outreach with the Keenan Grimes Community Outreach Center. The goal of this ride-along was to speak directly with people impacted by homelessness, and better understand their situation.

10News spoke with four individuals who shared their journeys — Skyler Owens, Laura Raines, Angel Channelhouse and Damien Sloane.

Skyler Owens helped the Keenan Grimes Community Outreach Center hand out food to folks on the street. It wasn't long ago he was in their same shoes.

"I've been living out here under the bridge with my sister," Owens said.

The two ended up there after aging out of the foster care system, Owens said. He said they came to Knoxville to live with a family member. However, it wasn't long before they were kicked out. In 2019, he became homeless. 

In 2022, his sister died due to an overdose under the bridge off Broadway. It was the moment that changed everything for Owens. He submitted an application for help to homeless and rehabilitation services, and is currently in the process of getting into stable housing.

He said the biggest thing holding him back from getting off the streets earlier was drugs.

"It's like an anchor holding you down getting you hooked on it," Owens said. "Once you get hooked on it. You're always coming back for more. And all it does is mess your life up."

Owens said he used to use 'ice,' more formally known as crystal methamphetamine, and his sister was on the needle using intravenous narcotics. They both struggled with the addiction.

"It's an experience that I never want to go through again," Owens said. 

Laura Raines also said she's struggled with addiction. Unlike Owens, she's been on the streets for nearly a decade. She considers herself extremely savvy navigating the streets.

"I've been out here so long, I couldn't even tell you everything," Raines said. "I've been dragged through the mud, beaten, shot, stabbed, bitten, and even tried to overdose myself before."

Her journey into homelessness was a tragic one.

Credit: WBIR

"My man and me moved into a home on the east side. And perfect little happy family. We got my kids back, I was off drugs. And then he died," Raines said.

It was that situation that drove her to drugs, and eventually to the streets. She lost her partner, then lost her kids to the state.

"When I first hit the streets now, I was doing about $1,600 a day worth of drugs," Raines said. 

In order to keep up with the financial demands of the addiction, she was cleaning cars, fixing homes, cutting hair, and accepting any odd jobs that became available to her.

She said she's tried many substances. She, like Owens, used methamphetamine. She said she also used crack cocaine.

"Once you take it, it just takes over," Raines said. "A lot of people are just trying to escape from the thoughts in their head. And the devil on their shoulder they can’t shake off."

Raines said she is diagnosed with schizophrenia. Over the years, she's watched her mental illness deteriorate. 

"I'm slightly schizophrenic, and I've been out here so long," Raines said. "If I am in a building, or have people I don't know around me, I can't sleep. Because I've got more eyes on me than I can count."

Although she's attempted to get off the streets in the past, she said she's not trying anymore. She said she believes she can help others experiencing homelessness with her faith.

"I still live in the streets and God knows what I need to do to survive," Raines said. "God knows what I need to be able to speak to his children that are lost and to find Jesus's disciples again, whom are in the streets waiting for him. So that's what I'm out here doing."

Angel Channelhouse said she is also devout and is at work in the streets.

"I'm proud to call myself, a junkie and an ex-junkie. And you know why? Because I am who I am in His name," Channelhouse said.

Credit: WBIR

Channelhouse said she started drinking alcohol at 13, and just a few years later she developed an addiction to crack cocaine. The addiction led her to prison time. 

"When I got out, I had nowhere to go," Channelhouse said. "Because in a small town, you've burned all your bridges. You're always labeled as a certain type of person. So for some reason, I wound up in Knoxville."

She said experiencing homelessness has been tough. The hardest thing for her is the discrimination they face.

"I think a lot of people that are homeless are discriminated against over and over and over and over again," Channelhouse said. "There's a reason why we drink, and a reason why we do drugs — because we're labeled as scum of the earth. Homeless people get labeled as nothing."

She said substances can often act as a way for them to escape the reality of their situation.

"It eases us," she said.

Damien Sloane agreed it's a tough life to live on the streets. He's been living from sidewalk to sidewalk since he got out of the military about a year ago. He was stationed in Afghanistan.

"So far, I've lost all my documentation that says I am who I am. So I can't get a job like through a temp service or nothing like that," Sloane said. 

Credit: WBIR

He's been actively trying to get off of the streets. In fact, he's even utilized the Knoxville Area Rescue Ministry's help to try and get new forms of identification.

"They'll help you get things you need and if you can't pay for it. They'll help you pay for it," Sloane said.

Sloane said the biggest part of getting off the streets is making a conscious effort to do so. 

"Nothing's going to change unless you, yourself, change your environment, situations and people you hang out with. If it's bad for you, get away from that stuff. You got to be mentally ready. And, you got to be emotionally ready to do it," Sloane said.

If you or someone you know is on the verge of homelessness, there are resources and safety nets set up to help you. You can call 211 to get connected to those services. 

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