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Voluntary Relocation?

The Volunteer Ministry Center may stand in the way of downtown's progress

by Joe Tarr

When city planners and developers dream about the downtown they'd like Knoxville to have, they picture people strolling along the brick Jackson Avenue stretching from the World's Fair Park to the Old City. They imagine quaint shops and cafes in some of Knoxville's oldest buildings. They see young professionals living in arty lofts and walking to work each day.

But standing in the way of that dream, they say, is a charitable organization called Volunteer Ministry Center at the corner of Gay Street and Jackson Avenue. It's not that these developers and planners don't like Volunteer Ministry—in fact, they praise the work the largely volunteer organization does. But because the group offers such unique services, it draws a large number of homeless and poor people to its doors every day. With these people milling about outside, some panhandling, there is no way the area will ever successfully develop, they say.

"If you drive up Jackson, at times there are significant clusters of individuals on the street, and that may lead people to think it's an unsafe place to be," says Doug Berry, Knoxville's director of development. "To date, every time I've shown real estate down there, that has been a topic that has come up. That does not mean we don't understand the need for Volunteer Ministry."

Those at the Ministry disagree that it is impossible for development to occur alongside their operations. However, the group says it will consider moving if it's given enough help and the right incentives. But the ramifications spread beyond this historic corner in Knoxville's downtown. What is the best way for the city to help the poor and homeless—including both people who want a better life and those who can't or don't want to be helped?

As downtown Knoxville tries to reinvent itself, just where do the disenfranchised fit in?

Volunteer Ministry was established in 1987 by a group of churches to fill a gap in services for Knoxville's homeless. The city's traditional shelters provide beds at night and meals, but during the day, most of them close their doors leaving the homeless to fend for themselves on the streets. The Ministry opened to give them a place to go.

At the day shelter, people can get out of the heat, rain, or cold, read, talk to others, store their belongings in a locker, take a shower, go to the bathroom, do laundry, and build bonds with people in similar situations. A full-time social worker is there to help with crisis situations and direct people to programs that may help. The shelter also has a play room for children (so parents who have no place to go can keep their children away from the more unstable, problem indigents) and a few sleeping cubicles for homeless people who have night jobs and are trying to save for an apartment. A number of community groups, churches and businesses also serve meals here. Though not every meal is provided, some days breakfast, lunch, and dinner is served. The day shelter tallies nearly 50,000 visits a year.

Since opening, the Ministry Center has greatly expanded its services, says executive director Ginny Weatherstone.

In an office called the Refuge, volunteers hear the troubles of a variety of poor people, she says. Some have fallen behind on their bills, and volunteers work with them on a plan to get back on their feet. Others simply need someone to talk to—like the homeless man whose best friend died.

A part-time nurse operates a free clinic, administering basic first aid and referring people when more serious care is needed. On Fridays, Dr. Robin Pelot operates a free dental clinic. At Christmas, the center runs a holiday store—letting people "buy" gifts through work at various community organizations and churches.

On the upper level of the building, Volunteer Ministry rents out 16 apartments to people who are trying to get back on their feet.

Johnny, a 38-year-old dressed in shorts, Timberland boots, a T-shirt, and ballcap, has been living in the apartments for about three months. Prior to that, he had been living on the railroad tracks in an abandoned box car, which he outfitted with a mattress, chair, table, and bookshelf, and kept locked. An alcoholic, he says he got $45 a week donating plasma. "You can live for free. Not live well, but you can live, which is good to know. It is boring," he says.

Johnny, who did not want his last name used, says he has been sober for a few months, works as a parking attendant, and hopes to take some computer classes to find something better. He has used just about all the shelters in the city at one time or another, but found Volunteer Ministry Center to be the best. Though not without its hassles, he says the center is better because people there aren't out to convert you.

Weatherstone says that Volunteer Ministry can't get everyone back on their feet, however. "A lot of people who come here are not employable. They may look it, but they're not," she says. "I've gotten to know them and I wouldn't hire them because I know about the voices they hear.

"I know a lot of people were here five years ago and will be here five years from now. Our goal for them is to meet their basic needs and to keep them off the street."

The people who would like to see Volunteer Ministry move aren't heartless to the plight of the homeless and poor. There's a definite need for the services Volunteer Ministry Center provides, they say. But, they insist, there is no way the Gay Street and Jackson Avenue corridor can develop around Volunteer Ministry.

"It's hard to get people to move their business in this block. If customers pull up and immediately somebody's panhandling, it's immediately a bad experience," says architect and developer, Buzz Goss, who lives downtown. "Or maybe there's a line of men waiting to get a meal or take a shower. We [downtowners] understand that, but just the visual image of 50 guys standing around looking unkempt is intimidating to people. Nobody wants to say these people don't deserve the services they're getting. But at the same time, it's preventing the city from reinventing itself."

Berry says the center will eventually have to be relocated. The people using the place aren't dangerous—most of the ones he's seen have been courteous and polite—but the perception they leave on visitors can't be overcome, he says.

"It's more perception as a whole than it is reality," he says. "I've been down there many times and had conversations with clients, and found every one of them courteous and respectful. But it does come up when you're dealing with perception."

This area is important and vital to development for a number of reasons, Berry says. Aside from the beautiful architecture, it is a gateway to the downtown area. In addition, the Sterchi Building on Gay Street, currently vacant, is one of the city's most prominent. "No matter which way you come from, you can see it," Berry says.

David Dewhirst, a developer who owns three buildings in the 100 block of Gay Street (including one that is his home), says he's had to deal with minor theft and vandalism. People have broken into one of his buildings on Gay Street, which Dewhirst is waiting to redevelop. "They get up there and drink and urinate all over the place and very minorly vandalize it. They break glass and doors and things like that. I really think it's a small percentage of people who use the [center]. But it's that small percent that infuriates me and makes me want to put up razor wire. It's not something I want to do, but after a while you get frustrated and lose your willingness to be open minded."

Even some of the people who use the center admit that it probably deters other things from happening. "By all means, it does [hinder development]," says Johnny. "But to fix that problem, you're going to have to get rid of a whole lot of homeless people and put a lot of them in institutions." And even if you move the center, homeless people will still come downtown to panhandle because that's where the people are, he says.

Others aren't convinced the center needs to move for development to happen—or that moving is the best answer. Weatherstone says that assigning a good police officer to the neighborhood would take care of most of the problems. "We know who our people are—they're alcoholics and drug addicts. They can't do [drugs] here, so they go over to the viaduct. We can't do anything about it over there, but a policeman can." She adds that Volunteer Ministry's location keeps many mentally ill people from disturbing people at other locations around the city. Move it too far, and that may no longer be the case.

Charlie Parsons, the Ministry's social worker, says the only way he'd be in favor of a move is if the city pledged to get more involved in helping the homeless and poor. "If all it is is, 'You've got to get out of here, see you later,'—that would not be good."

Moving Volunteer Ministry is much more complicated than merely finding space for it.

Dewhirst says that ideally, services for the poor and homeless would be spread around the city, so no one neighborhood or area would have to bear all the responsibility. "A dispersion of poverty is probably less likely to create problems than a concentration."

But at the same time, he says, it's more practical to have services in one place. "It would be ludicrous to put little things all over the place because they could never get to them."

To a large extent, services for the homeless and poor are already concentrated around Broadway and Fifth avenues. This area includes the Salvation Army and Knox Area Rescue Ministries, which both operate men's shelters and soup kitchens, and provide other services for the poor. Also located here is the 5th Avenue Motel, which houses some people and families who are a step above being homeless—some of them on their way down, others on the way up.

Developers see the area as an ideal place for Volunteer Ministry to relocate to, since many of its clients sleep and eat at these other facilities. But others say the move would only put the burden for the poor exclusively in one neighborhood, and would in effect be shuffling them off to a tiny section of town where they could be more easily ignored.

"The more you centrally locate services, the more people take advantage of them," Weatherstone says. "The disadvantage is it isolates a group of people who need to be learning how to relate with the rest of the community."

Knox Area Rescue Mission is planning to build a campus-style facility near its current location on Broadway Avenue, according to its president and CEO, Monroe Free. "Certainly, we would welcome the opportunity to partner with Volunteer Ministry as we develop our plans," Free says.

Randy Gibson, board president of Volunteer Ministry, said the organization would consider moving there. But at the same time, he says, it's important for the center to remain a distinct organization. "We have separate philosophies that we feel very strongly about and I'm sure they do too. So for that reason, I think it's important that we remain separate."

Gibson would not say what philosophies the groups have that might clash. But one big difference between them is that Knox Area Rescue Mission proselytizes to its clients, requiring shelter guests to attend its Christian services. Volunteer Ministry offers some religious services (and wants to offer services from other denominations and religions), but it does not require its clients to partake in any religious service or try to convert anyone, Weatherstone says.

One man using the day shelter was adamant about keeping the institutions as separate as possible. "There should be a distance," he says. "Otherwise, it clashes and causes more problems."

He's also bitter that anyone would think about moving the place. "This place was established before all those businesses come into the Old City. Some people are just heartless," he says.

Although people have been talking about moving Volunteer Ministry for years, no one has yet to make any proposals. Weatherstone says she's long heard rumors, but no city official or developer has ever talked with her about it.

Berry says that the city would help the center move. For now, the issue is on the backburner. "We've not formally approached the Ministry at this time. We're trying to finish up some projects we've got going, or we'll get spread too thin," he says. "In the meantime, we've got to stay focused on the convention center, the Miller Building, and the Old City. In due time, we'll address it."

Dewhirst says the problem needs to be tackled soon, and that public officials are avoiding it.

"Nobody really wants to deal with a tough issue like that," he says. "That needs to be a pretty important part of [redevelopment]. It can't be worked around because it's not a popular thing to do."