The Knoxville Skyline

In 2018, there were 815 youth who were unaccompanied by an adult recorded by the Knoxville Homeless Management Information System who were experiencing homelessness in Knoxville.

Youth aged 12 to 24 may make up a small percentage of Knoxville’s 187,500 population counted by the U.S. Census Bureau that same year. However, the number represents a growing issue within the country.

The homeless population encompassing college students aged 18-24 has been growing, including in Knoxville.

In its 2017 annual report, KnoxHMIS stated that on a single night, 41,000 youth were homeless across the U.S. with 88% between the ages of 18 and 24. In Knoxville, around 747 homeless youth were registered as homeless by KnoxHMIS.

The KnoxHMIS system, a partnership between the University of Tennessee College of Social Work and the Social Work Office of Research and Public Service, has been recording data on homelessness within Knoxville since 2007. Started in 2004 by endowed professor of mental health research and practice David Patterson, the program fosters a “greater understanding of the social consequences, human impact and other deleterious effects of homelessness.”

The data has helped the City of Knoxville and UT have a better understanding of who makes up the homeless populations and what can be done to help.

Michael Dunthorn, homeless program coordinator at Knoxville’s Office of Homelessness, explained that recently the city has been trying better to identify young adults who may be homeless in the city.

“We've been more intentional about trying to find youth and young adults and reach out to them. A lot of folks who are particularly young adults aren't going to even see themselves as homeless if they're couch surfing, you know, living in somebody else's place,” Dunthorn said. “Certainly somebody just starting out doesn't want to identify as homeless and so they're not necessarily looking for homeless resources.”

Through better and more deliberate study of the college homeless population, the proper institutions can step up to help address their needs such as housing, food and support for education.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development also started an initiative to reduce the number of youth experiencing homelessness through their Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program.

The City of Knoxville applied again for this coming year for the grant which Dunthorn explained offers cities a way of trying “new innovative ideas to solve a problem with the idea that you demonstrate something that works well and that it would be something that could be replicated in other places.”

To be able to qualify for the funding, Knoxville has to have a youth advisory council or according to HUD’s website about the YHDP, a Youth Action Board which has to be made of youth who are currently or in the past experienced homelessness.

Communities must also: bring together different stakeholders in the community like housing providers, school districts, the juvenile justice system, local and state child welfare agencies and workforce development organizations; assess the needs of special populations at higher risk of being homeless including racial and ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+ youth, parenting youth and youth involved in the foster care and juvenile justice systems and create a coordinated community plan to assess the needs of youth either at-risk or currently experiencing homelessness.

Knoxville has the Youth WINS (When in Need of Support) program which has youth advisors between the ages of 18 to 22. These advisors work to assist other youths find stable housing and connect them to community resources. In addition, the board advises the city on what actions are needed to help.

Annette Beebe, case manager and Youth WINS program manager at the Community Action Committee, said the board, which has over 44 members, meets twice a month and all the meetings by the youth council are closed to the public.

The board, Beebe said, is proactive with their mission on ending youth homelessness, currently working with the city to come up with solutions, but focuses mostly on supporting peers going through similar experiences.

“I think the reason why it's so popular is because it offers community,” Beebe said. “It offers a platform for their voice to be heard, and they are getting recognized in our community.”

Dunthorn said the local city government has access to an affordable rental housing fund which can help fill the gap in the funding package that's required for developers to develop apartments.

“The idea is that nobody should be paying more than a third of their income in rent. And so for people who don't have a lot of income, the cost of the apartment has to be fairly low,” Dunthorn said. “Most market rate developers are not looking for that. So they'll build the upscale stuff on their own and that's fine. In order to make the money work to be able to come out with a decent apartment that is ultimately affordable to somebody can sometimes require a little bit of help.”

The program could then increase the supply and long-term availability for those with modest incomes looking to rent apartments. Additionally, Dunthorn said that for young adults, the process of building affordable housing also needs to consider what resources are critical for helping students start their lives.

In addition to the city’s aim to receive funding to help get the homeless population off the streets, UT has also aimed at increasing awareness of the situation in Knoxville. Through several resources offered on campus, the university aims to help meet every student’s needs.

The university is increasing awareness through events like participating in National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. The university hosted its second Hunger and Homelessness Summit in November 2019, participating in an event held in more than 700 different locations.

The summit brought guest speakers to campus including founder and CEO of Swipe Out Hunger Rachel Sumekh and Larry Roper, a professor and coordinator of college student services at Oregon State University. Speakers and events were directed to focus on addressing students’ needs through connecting resources across campus.

As the conversation around college youth food and housing insecurity continues to grow, there is a hope that more students will be able to step forth and receive the help they need to continue on their college career.

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