What is happening?
Michael Dunthorn, who manages homeless programs for the City of Knoxville, recently spoke with WUOT regarding the project. The city is planning to build a day-use area under the I-40 Bridge at Broadway. The space will have fencing, assumedly like the fencing currently in the parking spaces in the area, which is tall metal fencing without barbed wiring. The space will have a gate that opens in the morning and closes at night. To clear up any confusion, people are NOT allowed to sleep there. There will be water and mobile toilets that will be cleaned and replenished every night. Some social services will also be provided via two social workers newly hired by Volunteer Ministries. It is unclear if these social workers will be provided any funding to help people, or if they will solely be referring people to resources that are already available. What is highly significant is that there will be security in the space during the day, providing a police presence that current residents say will be intimidating. TDOT currently owns that space and gave approvals for alterations at the end of July 2018. Dunthorn said the current population had been consulted about the space via informal conversations and surveys, yet it is unclear the results of these engagements or when and if these engagements happened.
What are the effects of this?
As presented in a WUOT interview, the assumption of Knoxville organizations who serve people who are unhoused is that the people who do not seek their services primarily do not want any help because they are “resistant” or are unwilling to change behaviors. Some acknowledgement is given to lack of trust for institutions. Research throughout the country has shown us that people who are unhoused often do not seek services because they find that the services do no appropriately address their needs and constraints. These services rarely address the structural violence perpetrated against poor people, people of color, LGBTIQ, or people who use drugs by government agencies, non-profit organizations, or the larger society.
Expecting someone who is unhoused to attend an appointment at a specific time away from where they are sleeping assumes that people have watches and transportation, assumes that people have safe spaces to keep their belongings while they attend an appointment, and assumes that the person has not faced any instances of violence or upheavals that prevent them from getting to the agency. Furthermore, people who are unhoused may be wary of shelters and state agencies because they have been traumatized in these systems. This trauma may have occurred because of administrative rules that do not adequately address the marginalized status of people seeking services, because of conflict with a staff member, or because of a conflict with another person seeking services. Further, many in this population have had traumatic experiences with other representatives of the state, including law enforcement and child protective services. One woman told me she would never try to go a Knoxville shelter again because when she was unhoused with her then nine-year-old son, they told her she could stay in the shelter but her child would have to stay by himself in the adult men’s shelter. These experiences that reveal the irrationality of the system make people never want to use the system again.
We understand that no one wants substance abuse to occur. Yet we have known for decades that some levels of substance use will continue to occur no matter how many resources are poured into law enforcement, treatment, or prevention. Thus harm reduction, especially community driven and grassroots harm reduction, must be considered. Harm reduction programs work to decrease the negative effects of substance use. While the end hope might be recovery, people must be met where they are and given services to prevent overdose deaths, HIV and hepatitis, and homelessness. The community under the bridge at this moment is in some ways a community driven harm reduction space. People are able to form social bonds. There are most likely negative aspects to these bonds, but there are also positive aspects. If people do not use or inject drugs in isolation, they are less likely to die of overdose. If they do overdose, they are more likely to be administered naloxone, to receive medical care, and thus to survive an overdose. Being able to have a routine decreases the risk environment in which people use drugs. If people know where to get unused syringes and know where they can use without being disturbed, they are more likely to use drugs in ways that prevent them from dying.
From these understandings, the proposed space seems to serve several functions. First, it turns this space from a place that is controlled by the people who live there into another place that is controlled by social services and law enforcement. These places already exist in Knoxville.
Second, it eliminates drug use from the area. While eliminating drug use from a space seems like an intrinsic positive, there are many consequences to this. It is highly unlikely anyone will cease deleterious drug use just because they are moved from a space where it can occur. As people are dispersed from a space, they are more likely to use drugs in isolation, resulting in higher overdose rates. As people are removed from their social connections, they are less likely to have access to unused needles and to be able to use at their own pace. This is important, because if people become sick with withdrawals, they may not have the time to find a safe way to use. As social connections are weakened or eliminated, people are more likely to suffer from negative mental health effects, which may increase drug use. To be clear, eliminating drug use from this particular space will do little to prevent or lessen drug use. Previous published research actually indicates it might increase drug use within this population. More, research from Denver after similar removals showed an increase in heroin combined with meth use, creating increased overdoses from the mixing of substances. People increasingly used meth to stay awake, since they had no place to safely sleep. What this action will do is further hide poverty, homelessness, and drug use from those in the process of gentrifying the surrounding neighborhood.
What are possible alternatives?
We understand that change is going to happen. We understand that new businesses and residencies will not tolerate the presence of people who are poor. If the city government does nothing, these organizations may utilize defensive tactics, which many are already doing in terms of fencing areas. Change is also necessary to improve the quality of life for those who lived under the bridge. The fact that we have tolerated this condition for decades, but now that some wealthy white people want to walk through the area, we all of a sudden find the conditions unacceptable is shameful. We agree that resource provision should be increased. Yet we contend that displacement will not improve their quality of life. Other options are possible.
Several organizations have risen to address these concerns in communities across the US. Of course every community is different and requires individualized approaches. Asheville is a city within our region with several organizations taking innovative and empowering approaches with people who are unhoused. BeLoved Asheville does not seek to manage people who are unhoused or to hide poverty. BeLoved is a community-based approach meant to empower those living on the margins through its Tiny Homes Community Project, Rise Up arts studio, Homeless Voice project, Street Medics Team, Free Village Farmers Market, Mutual Support Resource Center, and Grove Street Community Gardens. There are dozens of such organizations across the country that are examples of what we could do to promote life instead of death.
Other options include micro-communities of tents, self-made structures, modular housing, and tiny homes (real tiny homes, not the luxury ones on Western Avenue; those are pretty cool, but I’m not sure part of the solution here). Some people who are unhoused are understandably uninterested in shelters, but these micro-communities have the potential to provide empowering and democratic spaces. Single room occupancies (SROs) have been also been utilized for decades. If there is a half million in funding to pave a small area, surely there is some funding for these services? I have no doubt people are going to die because of this displacement, but they were dying before this displacement, because we only do something when it messes with the development of the Regas Building or something similar. And by “do something” I mean cause more harm, instead of actually helping fix anything, which requires immediate resources, long-term organizing, and social change.