By Cal and Lynn
I awoke to a boot by my face.
When I had gathered my confusion into a will to investigate, I followed the boot up to the officer wearing it. He stood above me, a disapproving grin on his face.
“Drink too much last night, son?”
“Yessir,” I snapped quickly, as my dad had taught me.
The officer knelt down to help me up from the grass where I had made camp. I wondered if I would be caught in my lie. In truth, I had been homeless for months. A few dozen feet away was the truck I often slept in, but last night I had wanted to stretch out.
The officer spent the next few minutes administering a sobriety test, and quite kindly talked to me about a school I was no longer enrolled in. I, of course, didn’t mention that. He had mistaken me for one of the college students who party in the next neighborhood over. It was clear he was trying to motivate me to focus on my classes.
We talked for a little while longer, before I got in my truck and thanked him for the help. I then drove away.
I am not alone.
Housing instability is an increasing problem, especially for millenials. Living in cars, at campsites, or just simply never moving out are all common conditions. Knoxville is no exception. However, capitalism’s failures are not new, and homelessness has been an issue that has only grown. Deinstitutionalization, the process of reducing and closing long-term inpatient mental institutions in favor of short-term community programs, began in the 1950’s and hit its peak in the 1990’s. During 1990 in Knoxville, they released all long-term patients from the mental asylum, renamed Lakeshore. Many of the people released had no where to go and became homeless.
On top of that, Knoxville’s surrounding counties did not have homelessness programs or designate enough resources to these efforts. They claim to not have a homeless population, but the truth is that surrounding counties have arrested any homeless person and dropped them off in Knoxville. As the city began evicting many camps throughout the county, especially along the railroads, underneath the bridge on Broadway became a protected space. It also became easier for police to know where to drop people off and where to find them again.
The city passed a “no camping” ordinance. While there may be places to camp within Knoxville, police are not raiding backyards and confiscating the tents of 5 and 7 year olds pretending to be on vacation. This ordinance is used for the sole purpose of criminalizing homelessness.
That officer never should have let me drive away.
I was breaking the no camping ordinance by choosing to sleep in the grass. The week before I had witnessed an officer take everything a woman owned for “camping”. Granted she didn’t own much, but here she is starting over, again.
I was lucky though. I had a truck to sleep in, I had a job to maintain it, and I had friends who let me use the shower. I’m white, and often straight, male passing. I’m lucky that officer looked at me and probably saw his son. The one who was failing out of Haslam Business school, a story he told me while trying to convince me to “throw yourself back in your studies.” He looked at me, and saw a person. Very often when the law stands above you, a person is the last thing it sees.
Capitalism is a death cult.
People are uncomfortable enough by poverty to not want to see it, but for most their class interests are opposed to destroying the system that creates this poverty, or at least they believe their interests are opposed. Capitalism when taught in school is simply a system that allows for competition, meaning that the best products and businesses survive and their counterparts that do not meet the same standards are eliminated. Society is not made of just businesses and products, it is made of people. So when some are allowed to hoard wealth at the expense of other people, the system is revealed for what it is: a competition between people to see who can survive the longest and which people will be eliminated. The system was designed to be violent, to rule out those that did not produce as expected. Looking at this through a disability lens, those that do not or cannot produce the labor (either kind or quantity) that is demanded will be taken out of the system; survival is determined by what an individual is able to produce for the system, and those that control the system will judge whether it is enough.
Houselessness is a different existence.
Some places are great to sleep at one night, but are deadly the next. Sometimes the law will work in your favor, depending on who you are. By in your favor I mean that the law will simply ignore you, rather than harm you. There is no voting when you don’t have an address. Sometimes the law will lock you up for panhandling too much to the wrong people (read: the wealthy people). There is no social code that protects you, no organization there to mitigate the harm, no one to back you up when bullies take advantage. The world seems to move beneath your feet.
To live while houseless is to truly be in a state of anarchy.
Knoxville is uncomfortable with houselessness
It should be, especially when so many of these problems are entirely artificial. Unfortunately, Knoxville’s general solution to things it is uncomfortable with is to try to make them go away and then call that a solution. When the system tries to get rid of those that do not produce, it does not take into account that it is trying to eliminate people. Our ability to produce is not correlated with our ability to find community and work outside of the system.
There was only one place they were allowed to stay: under the bridge across from Knoxville Area Rescue Ministries (KARM) and the Salvation Army. They unknowingly created a radical space of mutual aid, community, and a home. People shared their resources with each other, and it was easy to provide aid because everyone was congragated in one area.
Project ACT had been exchanging used needles for clean needles and distributing Narcan, a drug used to reverse overdoses, to the people so they could help themselves. Someone that works with those folks mentioned that they had worked out a system with whistles: if you saw someone overdosing, you would blow your whistle and the nearest person with Narcan would come to administer it. Everyone gave what they had because they knew that someone would give it back to them when they or their friends needed it.
This was the existance people had made for themselves outside the structural violence of capitalism. Until the city had realized what it had created and decided that the view of people rejecting not only capitalism and the uncaring, self-centered culture it creates, but also rejecting organizations that caused harm. Homeless folks have refused to use KARM or Salvation Army for their unreasonable rules, mandatory religious participation, anti-LGBTQ sentiment, and condesending view of poverty and houselessness, as well as the fact that these places seem more in the business of kicking people out than bringing them in.
The city government started clearing out underneath the bridge on a regular basis for months before the eviction. They claimed it was for public health reasons. Which is a legitimate concern that could have been solved with public restrooms that were cleaned regularly. Instead, they came through with a loader and gave people only a five minute warning to gather all their belongings. If they were not there, hopefully others had time to collect their most important belongings. Personal items and necessities were scooped away, telling folks that despite how hard they had tried to make that space a home, Knoxville would continue to put them in their place. On October 22nd, they came to take the space for good. They claimed it was an effort to solve homelessness; they were going to pave the area and put a park there with toilets and social workers. The catch? It could only be accessed during the day, they would put up a fence and have dedicated police and private security to watch the park, prosecuting any violators with criminal trespassing. Our annual budget to address homelessness in Knoxville is $500,000. Of this, $200,000 will be used to build the park and an additional $170,000 will be used to pay for security to keep people out.
We are not alone.
Its an important thing to know, beyond just the numbers. I am not the only early twenty-something who has slept in their car, and I am not the first to contemplate my place in a state that does not want me. We are all here, surviving this thing together.
So, the next question is what do I, neighbor to these people, do?
In Luke 3:11 John the Baptist tells his followers, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” Part of this, that is not often mentioned, is that to know the need, you need to talk to people and listen to them. Here are some suggestions on next steps from the people that have been working with these folks and my personal experience.
As mentioned before, KARM and the Salvation Army are not options. If you seek to help, you would do better just handing that money to a person who needs it.
As winter approaches, blankets and heavy jackets are going to become paramount. Similarly, due to the unique vulnerability houselessness brings, many minor and easily treated wounds become very serious. Get trained in wound care and serve your neighbors. Buy Narcan and hand it out to everyone you know. These simple things save lives.
If you are up for the challenge, form a committed long-term aid group without a religious mandate. It is not something you can do alone, find people that are ready to work and that have skills you can learn. Listed below are various groups doing this work across the country that can be used as models to organize around.
Above all else take care of each other. If we are going to survive this, it’s going to be together.
Thank you to The Forge for providing this space, and thank you to our comrades who shared their knowledge.
The Safe Parking Program, which is a series of programs throughout California that connect people living in their cars with safe spaces to park: http://www.dreamsforchange.org/the-safe-parking-program/
BeLoved Asheville: www.belovedasheville.com/
Dignity Village, the Portland housing camp: https://dignityvillage.org/
The Gubbio Project: https://www.thegubbioproject.org/
Housing first models:
- Colorado Coalition for the Homeless Housing First Program: https://www.coloradocoalition.org/housing-first
- Breaking Ground: https://breakingground.org/
- Pathways: Housing First: https://www.pathwayshousingfirst.org/
- Positively Living Supportive Housing Program: https://positively-living.org/
- Homeward Bound Asheville: https://homewardboundwnc.org/home/
- Skid Row Housing Trust: http://skidrow.org/
Providing small housing units for houseless:
- The Mad Housers Atlanta: http://madhousers.org/
- Madworkshop Homeless Studio: http://madworkshop.org/projects/homeless-studio/
- Tiny Houses: A Permanent Supportive Housing Model: www.communityframeworks.org/ws-main/docs/FINAL%20Tiny%20Homes%20White%20Paper%20March%202015.pdf
Cal and Lynn are radical Appalachian leftists, and wannabe revolutionaries.