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County homeless task force set in motion

Anderson County Commissioners Tim Isbel (standing, left) and Shain Vowell discuss the county’s homeless problem at the Rocky Top City Council meeting on Thursday, Oct. 15. Seated (center) is Councilman Tony Delaney, while City Manager Michael Foster is seated on the right. (photo:G. Chambers Williams III )
Anderson County is moving to create a special task force to deal with the issue of homeless people on the streets, particularly in Rocky Top, Clinton and Oak Ridge.

The County Commission heard ideas on formation of the task force Monday night after the commission’s Operations Committee, which includes eight of the 16 county commissioners, voted unanimously on Oct. 12 to bring the measure before the full commission.

County Mayor Terry Frank, who was at the Operations Committee meeting, said Monday that the task force is a good idea to address the homeless problem.

“There was a lot of good discussion,” Frank said. “We know in Appalachia that opiate and meth addiction and homelessness are often tied together. I know there have been some issues where we have been able to bring people together with smaller groups of people representing different interests, more like a working group.

“The goal isn’t for the county to take over the issue of what is going on in Rocky Top,” she said. “But maybe we can put together something where the county can facilitate a pathway going forward. One of the big challenges will be the addiction side of things. A lot of those with the addictions don’t want to stop taking these drugs, don’t want the help that is available. We’ve got to break down what the issues are, what the percentages are [of the homeless] that are addictions.”

Both commissioners who represent the Rocky Top area – Tim Isbel and Shain Vowell – took the task-force idea to the Rocky Top City Council on Thursday night (Oct. 15) after a group of Rocky Top people appeared at the Operations Committee meeting to talk about the homeless issue in their town.

A countywide issue

“We’ve got a problem countywide with homelessness,” Isbel said in addressing the Rocky Top council and visitors to the council meeting.

Referring to the Oct. 12 county meeting, Isbel told the council, “So we had people from Rocky Top come. I’m on the Tourism Board and I hear a lot about [homelessness] from Clinton and Oak Ridge. Even at the Tourism Bureau, we’ve had people sleeping on the back porch.

“And Capt. [Shain] Vowell can tell you that it’s the situation all over the county. … We talked about it and there were eight commissioners there. It was a unanimous vote to try to form a task force to see what we can do to combat it. And it would be people from Rocky Top, Clinton, Oak Ridge, the city council, the mayor, just whoever wants to be involved so we can start working on these issues.

“What we talked about is what causes homelessness, about the substance abuse that goes on along with homelessness, and what government grants [are] out there [that might help with the issue]. HUD has a program … We’ve already had some people from TORCH and some other places that want to come in and talk about what they can do,” Isbel said.

“So we realize as county commissioners — we both represent Rocky Top, we both live here, we both see what goes on, and we’re property owners here — so we know how it affects the [property] values, we know how it affects the business.

“The [Rocky Top] City Council, [City Manager] Mike Foster, I talk to them a lot over this issue and what can be done. I talk to the mayor about it. With everybody working together, I believe we can come up with some kind of solution.”

Arrests won’t work

Vowell, who also is a captain on the Anderson County Sheriff’s Department, said he agrees that the homelessness issue isn’t specific to Rocky Top, where some local residents and people who live nearby have recently been calling for the city to remove the homeless people from the streets.

“What we have discovered with our phone calls is [that] it’s not just in Rocky Top,” Vowell said. “I think it’s more noticeable in Rocky Top because of the size of the town. [The homeless problem] does exist in Clinton and it does exist in Oak Ridge, but [with] those areas being a little larger it may not be as noticed.

“When we had our meeting Monday night, we had several people from the [county commission’s 4th]] district who came to voice their concerns. … It’s a problem that’s going on across the [nation]. Some of it is drug addiction. Some of it is people who had a hard time and fell down on their luck,” Vowell said.

“And we talked to some of the ones we consider homeless in the town and they refuse the help. … They would rather live in the environment they’re in. … That makes it a very complicated problem. Arresting them and putting them in jail will not solve the problem. Most of the arrests are going to be misdemeanor offenses, which means they’re going to be let out in a day or two, if not sooner, and they are going to come right back. So, incarceration isn’t going to solve the problem.”

Vowell suggested that mental illness might be one key cause of the homeless situation.

“We can sit here all night and talk about mental illness, but until the state legislature replaces Lakeshore in Knoxville or [provides] a facility like it, I don’t see any help coming with that particular problem,” he said.

“If there were an easy solution to this, city council would have already come up with it; county commission would have already come up with it. It’s a complicated problem, it’s going to take a while to fix it.” Vowell added that he believes forming a task force “is a good way to address it.”

“We can bring experts in from all these different fields that we’ve discussed,” he said. “Maybe something that worked somewhere else might work in our area.

“So that’s why we’d like to form the task force, with city officials being involved in it, county officials being involved … [people from] law enforcement, mental health, addiction and abuse treatment. If we can bring all those people to the table and start discussing new ways to address this problem, hopefully we can see some solutions.”

City Manager Foster told the council and visitors, “I do [regular] meetings with the [other] city managers. … This conversation came up in our last meeting. Norris is having issues. They’ve got a new sidewalk in the town; they’re seeing issues there, too. Clinton’s dealing with it at the interstate. They’ve got hotel issues they’re dealing with. Oak Ridge is dealing with it.”

But the solution some Rocky Top people have suggested – having the police remove the city’s homeless – won’t work, Foster and the commissioners agreed.

“There’s nothing illegal about being homeless; there’s nothing in the Constitution that says you can’t be poor,” Foster said, echoing the two county commissioners’ views that arrests of the homeless would be futile.

“Nobody is taking this problem lightly,” Vowell said. “Nobody is ignoring it.”