By now, many Knoxviews readers may be sick of reading about "Minvilla," the old Fifth Avenue Motel on Broadway that the City purchased for the Volunteer Ministry Center using federal community block grant dollars.
However, I was encouraged by a media person to post some comments I originally made on some of the neighborhood listservs about Minvilla. While personally, I’m dealing with quite a lot at the moment, including being subpoenaed next Wednesday for the aggravated burglary trial of the homeless man who broke into our house last month, this is an important issue that needs to be dealt with more thoroughly by the media. None of us active in our community enjoy having to point out uncomfortable truths, but there is a time and a place to speak the truth when you see something egregious happening right before your eyes.
I’m going to be posting some things that I hope will illustrate some poor choices and missed opportunities being made by our current city administration.
We'll call this Part 1 in a series.
Let me begin by saying that this is not a neighborhood issue, or a NIMBY issue. This is an issue that every resident of Knoxville and Knox County, and that every donor or volunteer to KARM, VMC, or the Salvation Army needs to open their hearts and minds about and consider how and why the administration is making such bad decisions. I would also add that virtually all of the residents of Fourth and Gill, Old North, Oakwood Lincoln Park, North Hills—neighborhoods that have more large-scale homeless shelters close to them than any other part of town--recognize the importance and need for homeless housing, and many of our residents volunteer their time at various ministries and shelters.
Our neighborhoods also hope that our experiences in dealing with the homeless will be heard, as folks from Bearden, West Hills, and Cedar Bluff deal with more and more homeless camps. We all need to work together. I was horrified to hear on the news a resident of Farragut describing how unfit Farragut was to deal with any homeless programs. You can ignore the problem, or you can deal with it rationally, and equally shoulder the burden facing our community as a whole.
The problem is not going to go away. But it can be better managed.
The issue here is one of accountability, and of indeed using the resources we have to actually help the homeless, and not pad projects with a bunch of professional fees and services that erode the benefit to the community.
So in this post, I want to put you in a real scenario: It is Spring, 2006. You’re the mayor of Knoxville. You have a chunk of community development block grant money, approximately $450,000. If you don’t use it, the city will lose it. Fair enough. While it is not “free federal funds,” few would argue that this money can be used to help our community. The year before, in 2005, along with the county mayor, you embraced a nationwide trend pushed by the Bush Administration that argues that housing the homeless first, then getting them into programs and services that they desperately need, is a bona fide approach toward combating chronic homelessness. You make it a priority to put this money into your own, brand new Ten Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness.
Now with the clock ticking, you convince city council to direct this $450K chunk of money to the Volunteer Ministry Center to purchase 13 dilapidated rowhouses, despite public outcries that the area has already become oversaturated with homeless service providers, and those clients of the shelters have little access to entry level jobs or employment because of the very location of the shelters. This decision will doubtlessly contribute to a cycle of dependence that these homeless clients will have to overcome, a legacy that dates back to the first and worst housing projects under the Johnson Administration under the mantra of “urban renewal.” This may be good for the business of the shelters, but it is not helpful in encouraging the dignity, independence, and change required to move people out of homelessness and poverty.
You could have picked a number of ways to spend the money, but you picked this one—a multi-million dollar historic rehabilitation to grow a concentrated mission district, while nationally, other cities have already figured out that this doesn’t work (see Los Angeles). Original estimates for the renovation of the building come in at around $3 million, but two years later, the price tag is now over $7 million. When complete, it will house 57 formerly homeless people. That is $123,000 per person, just under the median home price in Knoxville of $152,000. Much of the money will come from private sector and faith based organizations. But the complex financing deal still uses over $2 million in public monies.
By choosing Minvilla, we understand that you were trying to kill two birds with one stone: do a historic rehabilitation while getting 57 homeless off the street. Both of these are worthy goals. But tying them together in one project was a risky and unwise decision. Now, two and a half years later, the building is further deterioriating, continues to be a blight on the neighborhood, and the costs are escalating. I’m all for historic preservation, and have done several myself, but there are times when it makes sense, and times when it doesn’t. On housing the homeless, quite frankly, in that time, you’ve done nothing.
In addition, were Minvilla restored for private purposes, it would be worth only $2 million. As Mayor, by making such a risky decision, you’re wasting a lot of money and time chasing two goals in direct opposition to each other. Historic rehab is expensive and time consuming. Housing the homeless needs to be cost-effective and fast. Frostbite is real, folks. Getting beaten up and robbed by other homeless after you've been dumped on the street in between meals at the shelter: extremely real.
Now a year after you’ve secured Minvilla for VMC, you hire as your executive director for the Ten Year Plan Jon Lawler, a close friend of yours, but a person not necessarily experienced in homeless issues. He is, however, quite an expert at low-income housing projects. He also claims unspecified experience in “community development.”
The company he left to assume this position is Lawler Woods, his family’s business. Lawler Woods has built what have become some of the worst housing projects in Knoxville’s history—places like Townview Terrace and Morningside Gardens. Ask anyone about the reputation and record of these facilities. Nationally, the company has developed a portfolio of low-income housing projects worth over $336 million. In the last two years, the company has been selling off some of its Knoxville interests.
Not only did their company originally build them under lucrative HUD contracts, in some instances, they even received contracts to rebuild them once they became places of crime and squalor, like the $9 million re-do of Townview Terrace in 2004. So not only did Lawler Woods build them, they managed them poorly for a long time, let them fall apart, then took more federal monies to fix them again.
But back to our scenario: It is now November, 2008, two and a half years since you and City Council awarded VMC the money to buy the 5th Avenue Motel. And you still haven’t housed any more homeless. Two winters have come and gone. It is now almost four years since the city and the county received a $1.45 million grant to begin the Ten Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness, awarded in January 2005.
You could have used that original block grant money to immediately get these folks off the street and into emergency housing. Some buildings might have needed some work, but members of the community have identified several dramatically less costly, suitable buildings. You ignore them. All energy is focused on Minvilla and the Ten Year Plan, seriously draining available monies to other worthy community development organizations.
On the 37917 Yahoo group this week, Rob Finley, one of the staff of the Ten Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness, is busy discussing his corner office at the City County building that overlooks the Gay Street bridge and the Tennessee River, while debating implementation of National Park Service standards for respecting the historic character of the building. How lovely.
Meanwhile, Thanksgiving is only two weeks away. The shelters are getting ready for a holiday of epic proportion with the increasing number of homeless in a troubled economy.
But as Mayor, instead of getting on the stick, and getting some folks off the street, you propose to push back the expected completion date for VMC/TYP's Minvilla project to 2011 (12/31/2010).
You, dear reader, are the Mayor in this scenario. I am asking you, as a taxpayer and resident: Does it really take over $7 million and 4 years and 7 months to house 57 homeless people in Knoxville?
As a neighbor of mine, Catherine, said last night on our listserv:
“I'm appalled by this attitude from Mr. Finley and as any who know me would assure you, I'm not easily appalled.
I don't have a shiny office overlooking Gay Street and the river. I work (very hard) in a windowless cube for the money I use to pay my taxes and to buy my home in a wonderful neighborhood. You, Mr. Finley, are turning around and spending that money to over-saturate my lovely area with more homeless services THAT DON'T EVEN SERVE THE MOST PEOPLE FOR THE LEAST MONEY. This attitude, behavior and complete disregard to being appropriate with money AND language is completely disrespectful and I will be happy to let anyone know how I feel about it.”
Having worked in nonprofit ministry myself, I can tell you that you if you cannot measure change in the clients you serve, you cannot measure outcomes. Many, like VMC and KARM, are very fuzzy when it comes to describing their outcomes. They can tell you all day about how many clients walked through the door, how many meals they served, how many referrals they made. But few agencies are up to the immense challenge of measuring and documenting their outcomes—that is measuring the change demonstrated by the clients they serve.
So after spending all this time and all this money, Mayor, including ensconcing the staff of our Ten Year Plan in riverfront corner offices, just how many homeless have we changed? And how hard are we willing to look at the results? Or do we just close our eyes and throw more money and time at it so that we feel better about ourselves helping the less fortunate as another holiday season rolls around?
Let’s get some folks off the streets and into supportive housing. But let’s not take 5 years and over $7 million to do it at Minvilla. Let’s do it now, not in 2011.
If what your city and county are doing with the resources given them for the Ten Year Plan bothers you, please contact your County Commissioners and City Council members. And let's use this as an opportunity to propose how to get these folks off the street a more efficient and timely manner.
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