As many will remember, there was controversy earlier this year about homeless services in our community.
I hope to add another perspective for our consideration. I’m a minister in Clinton and have been working with people experiencing homelessness in our community, as well as the nonprofits who serve them, for the past 6.5 years.
A few years ago, a meeting of community agencies (the majority of which primarily serve children) labeled “homelessness” as the number one resource gap in the Clinton community — the number one frustration of helping agencies because of the number of homeless people applying for help and the lack of knowing how, or having the means, to help them.
In my endeavors with homelessness in our community, I’ve learned that the main gap we face is the one between realities and misconceptions — the realities of what our homeless community is like and the misconceptions of people in our community, many of whom are not aware of or deny their existence.
Many of our homeless neighbors are from Clinton. Our homeless include children, elderly, pregnant women, single mothers, the disabled, families, teens, and single men.
They are homeless due to illness, disabilities, fire, job loss, loss of transportation, divorce, domestic violence, caring for sick loved ones, family deaths, and, yes, some have mental health struggles like depression, anxiety, addictions, and PTSD — not unlike the rest of the population of Clinton. All of these — even and especially the latter category, are in need of our help and are deserving of it. They are not for us to demoralize as inhuman or guilty in need of our judgment, but they are very similar to us: in need of compassion.
As an example, in one week’s time our church was approached by seven homeless cases: One was a pregnant woman sleeping in the open under a tree; two were single mothers with children sleeping in their cars; one was an elderly man on a walker sleeping in chairs of any lobby he could find open; one was a 90-year-old man sleeping at KOAs, whose tent had been stolen; and the other two were single men who didn’t share much of their stories but received food from our pantry.
In my work with the homeless, I’ve come to know some of the most extraordinary, kind, and compassionate people I’ve ever met. I don’t feel unsafe with 99-percent of them — I have felt many of them would give their lives in my defense before they let anything happen to me. I have found that what distinguishes the homeless from the rest of the community is NOT drug use — goodness knows we have plenty of well-to-do people in our community with the same issue. The difference is power, protection, wealth, influence, and relational collateral—a support system that stands by them. I grew up in Jefferson City, a community very much like ours with a homeless population much like ours.
A lot of my time as a child was spent at Samaritan House — a homeless shelter my dad started, where I also volunteered for six of my teen years and had some of the most amazing experiences and friendships. Before Samaritan House started, some in the community had concerns, similar to those in this community. Samaritan House has functioned successfully as a compassionate small-town shelter for more than 30 years, helping businesses and agencies in the community because they know where to refer employees and clients for assistance — helping churches, civic groups, and youth volunteer and gain safe service experiences. It is well known and embraced proudly by the community. It has never attracted “riffraff” or an influx of homeless people flocking to its services.
I’ve volunteered at KARM and other inner-city homeless services; I know people worry homeless services in Clinton will become a hangout like KARM, but I want to bear witness to the fact that small-town homeless services CAN be done differently and very successfully. Jefferson City borders Knoxville like we do. We are a different type of community from Knoxville — rural homeless services largely help a different clientele.
About eight years ago, Samaritan House built a new shelter next to my parents’ house, next to their well-to-do neighborhood. I don’t fear for my parents’ safety—my parents don’t fear for their safety or their property. Property values have not gone down; in fact, they’ve gone up. I don’t fear for my daughter’s safety playing in their yard. There’s never been an incident, nor has there been a community disturbing incident in the more than 30-year history of the program.
I’ve spoken with people in our community who wish we had a place where the homeless can gather and be safe, monitored, and helped, rather than hanging out in the woods behind their house where their children play. Homeless services can alleviate the issue of homelessness in Clinton, rather than exacerbate it. Homeless services can help our community. I think very highly of the agencies in our community already trying to alleviate homelessness — TORCH, YWCA, and TVCH — but they need far more resources to tackle this issue in Anderson County.
A couple years ago our church helped start a drug and alcohol recovery program on our property. People had similar fears that it would attract the “wrong” kind of people. The blessing this program and its people have been to our church far outweighs any liability.
It is human nature to be leery of what we don’t understand. This uncertainty leads to fear, which leads to anger, hatred, and violence. We must realize much of the problem lies with our own lack of understanding, and we must learn to deal with our fears rather than lashing out at those we don’t understand.
Getting out of our comfort zones to engage with people who are different from us will result in positive experiences, understanding, compassion, and lives changed for the better. I can’t wait until my daughter is old enough to help me in my work and meet some of the fine people I’ve been fortunate to know in ReNew Recovery and our homeless ministries.
I hope we can come together to paint a beautiful picture of our community, one that proudly embraces and helps those in need rather than dumping them off at services outside our community—or worse at the county line; one that does not politicize this issue for self-serving motives at the expense of the “least of these” we are called to serve, and one that is proud of our reputation for helping those in need rather than ashamed of their existence. It can be done safely and compassionately, and these services can help prevent the cycle of poverty that brings people to points of desperation, for the betterment of all.
The Rev. Amanda Wilson Taylor is the minister of missions and director of Creative Ministries at First Baptist Church of Clinton.