Bitter cold. Snow. Ice. That covers the weather for Knoxville in February. It inconvenienced many of us by temporarily interrupting power or making roads too treacherous to travel. It posed deadly harm in the form of single digit temperatures to the homeless.
Weather Cultivates Concern
One person posted on Facebook her concerns for a person staying under a bridge near her home. She took blankets to the individual, but as it became colder, she feared the person might freeze to death during the night. She says that she called the police department and they said they would go by later to see if the person needed help. Not satisfied she called 911 and an ambulance did come and pick up the person.
I saw a post by the Common Cause Thrift Shop asking for donations of coats, blankets, hand warmers which they distributed during this emergency. Two churches opened their doors to provide shelter: Park West Church of God as a Red Cross Shelter, and Redeemer Church of Knoxville because people came seeking shelter. These incidents made me wonder what is the best way to help during a time of extreme need.
Where to Look for Help
Knoxville has a number of non-profit organizations–Salvation Army. Knoxville Area Rescue Ministries (KARM), Volunteer Ministry Center(VMC)–dedicated to helping people every day of the year. I contacted Rev. Bruce W. Spangler, COO of Volunteer Ministry Center and asked him what happened during a weather crisis: Are rules regarding admission to a shelter relaxed at all? Is there a means of checking on those who usually don’t want to come to a shelter to see if they would now? Does anyone have the authority to make a person, i.e., police, to stay in shelter?
Rev. Spangler replied, “As to your questions, shelter requirements are loosened during the bitter cold. I don’t know about the ‘making someone’ stay in a shelter. I would say that authorities can strongly encourage but I doubt that anyone can make someone go into a shelter (it becomes one of civil rights).”
I spoke to Eddie Young, President of Redeeming Hope Ministries, and Executive Director of “The Amplifier,” who registered dismay over the lack of across-the-board acceptance of people needing shelter during extreme weather. “Although Redeemer Church was not set up to operate as a shelter, we did the best we could to care for some turned away at KARM.”
Communication During A Crisis
How do the people on the street know where to look for help during extreme weather? Young says word of mouth is simple and fast and workers or volunteers for a shelter also alert people and offer transportation. If you are a person worried about the safety of someone during such a crisis, 911 is the number to call.
After The Crisis
So the fiercest of the weather has passed and life returns to normal. I wondered if we had lost anyone due to freezing to death outside and called the City of Knoxville Police Department, Records & Accidents. Transferred to the Crime Analysis Unit, the message I received was that they don’t keep stats on deaths due to cold, but did not recall any in the month of February. Eddie Young knows of one man who died out-of-doors during the cold, but says it is difficult to say death was the direct result of exposure without an autopsy.
What is easy to note is how the concern dissipates after an emergency. This doesn’t go unnoticed by the homeless or by the professionals who work with them on a daily basis. Why this gap?
Spangler says, “Often times the bitter cold or extreme heat will bring about a desire to help. Emergency situations do require emergency responses. However, that mode of operating only concentrates on the problem and permanent solutions are ignored.
Our community, for the most part, perceives homelessness as something that good people do to help the less fortunate. Since the good people respond, civic leadership and elected officials need not worry about it. Therefore it is not a community problem, just a bad experience that someone else has.
Permanent solutions that consist of accessible and appropriate housing plus services are proven effective and cost efficient. However, it takes a public policy perspective to make that happen.It takes community support and political will. At this time, the two are not on the same page. Until this happens, we will continue to struggle how to respond in momentarily incidents of inclement weather and ignore the issue the rest of time.”
Knoxville has many caring citizens who work through religious and other helping organizations to provide good “band-aids” for the homeless. It is time to push back this first responder, emergency mode of operation. Consistent, unified effort is the solution to lead the nearly 800 people of Knoxville’s streets to a home.