Volunteer Ministry Center
The Volunteer Ministry Center provides outreach for Knoxville's homeless who gather under the I-40 overpass on Magnolia. Their offices are located on 511 North Broadway.

Last week, Gov. Bill Lee issued an order for all Tennesseans to stay at home in order to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. For millions of residents, this order was a necessary nuisance like many others ordered across the nation, and while it threatens finances, it might at least herald an opportunity to finally fix the leaking bathtub drain or spend time with family.

But for the thousands of homeless people in the state, the order is a simple impossibility, and it highlights the compounding disadvantages of being without shelter in a time of shelter-in-place orders.

The Helen Ross McNabb Center, a not-for-profit provider of behavioral health care, is one of many resources in the Knoxville area for homeless individuals. Such centers are becoming more vital for those made more vulnerable to sickness by the absence of a permanent residency.

Jessica Carlton, the military and homeless programs services coordinator for the McNabb Center, says that the homeless population of Knoxville is experiencing isolation to a higher degree than those who have homes and family networks to which they can turn to in a stressful time.

“Individuals experiencing homelessness in our community are already vulnerable and at higher risk for complications related to the pandemic,” Carlton said. “Many individuals experiencing homelessness are also very socially isolated, and the homeless provider is often the only source of social support the individual can access during this time of increased anxiety.”

Carlton notes that one of the largest unseen impacts of the virus on the homeless community is how difficult it has made the process of applying for housing, stranding many homeless individuals without the opportunity to even submit an application.

Photo IDs, birth certificates and social security cards are all necessary materials for a housing application, but now these can only be accessed online and require an address for delivery. Homeless individuals are not even able to access the internet through their local library, as they usually do. And with their operating hours severely limited, food pantries are not able to provide for the community as they normally would.

In order to help those without an address in this time when no one is leaving theirs, the City of Knoxville announced last week that it would be partnering with the Metro Drug Coalition to convert their West 5th Avenue building into a shelter for homeless people showing symptoms of coronavirus.

The new shelter, called “The Guest House,” can house up to 18 homeless individuals who have shown symptoms for coronavirus and have been tested. It began operations Monday and will be managed by the Volunteer Ministry Center on a two-month budget of $95,000 provided by the city government.

As for individual attempts to help the homeless community of Knoxville at this time, Michael Dunthorn, the homeless program coordinator for the City of Knoxville, suggests that the work is best left to the ministries and agencies who are dedicated to serving the at-risk population. The best thing for any of us to do, he says, is to find ways to support various organizations in the work they are already doing.

“Ask what is needed before making a plan or taking action,” Dunthorn said. “It has always been true that the best way to help is to ask the agencies and organizations that do this work every day what is needed, and then to provide money, time or material goods to them to help meet those specific needs.”

In fact, the worst thing to do during a pandemic, Dunthorn says, is to attempt to actively help the homeless and simultaneously risk spreading sickness.

“Working together to fill the gaps is always less wasteful and more effective than taking action without really knowing what's actually needed most,” Dunthorn said. “In the current situation this has become critical. Gathering up donations or preparing food and then driving down somewhere to distribute it can actually put everyone at risk by creating large, disorganized gatherings of people close together where they are more likely to transmit the COVID-19 virus.”

The good news amid the financial and social rubble of the coronavirus is that numerous organizations in Knoxville, such as Knoxville Area Transit, Knoxville Area Rescue Mission and United Way, are continuing to provide their essential services to the homeless community at a time when it is most needed.

The best the rest of us can do is help support them with our time and — perhaps more importantly — our money and try not to get in the way or spread the virus further than it is already reaching.

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