Helping the Rural Homeless in Tennessee

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On a slightly-more-than-one-lane road, off a winding country drive, off TN-63 deep in the forested beauty of the eastern Cumberland Plateau, a new homeless shelter opened its doors five months ago. Partially shielded from the road by a dense thicket of trees, the former abandoned building now housing the Scott County Homeless Shelter would look still abandoned if it weren't for the cars parked outside.

Only after entering the door marked "office" do I realize I've just walked into someone's living space without invitation. Faux pas already committed, I sheepishly sit down at a kitchen table to wait for its resident to finish a phone call. 

A big screen TV dominates one end of the windowless room, broadcasting closed-circuit video monitoring six different areas of the shelter. Cases of soda, bottled water, and iced tea are stacked against one cement block wall.  In a small bedroom off to one side, crumpled and twisted blue sheets typical of one who does not enjoy the luxury of a good night's sleep lie on top of a mattress on the floor.

Jerry Voiles emerges from his office with a big smile on his face. He's gregarious and energetic with a bushy mustache and an easy southern twang. I like him immediately.

Voiles spent the better part of his professional life earning six figures in the telecommunications industry. Then in the early 1990s he started reading the Bible. The deeper he got into the Good Book, the more an unsettling realization began to gnaw at him. "I had my priorities totally out of whack," he admits.

Within a few years, his complete spiritual evolution launched him down the path of serving others before himself.  Now well into his 50s, Jerry only earns a $15,000 annual salary in his position as executive director of the new homeless shelter, though every word he speaks evinces the non-monetary riches his work endows.

If he sees someone in need, Jerry does what he can to help. The plight of others makes the minor discomforts of his own life irrelevant, and the human connections he establishes nurture his soul. "I'm concerned about other people," he says. "I'm worried they won't have enough food to feed their families. I have to do what I can to help."

Homelessness is not an entirely new phenomenon in the rural wilderness of the upper Cumberland Plateau, but with local unemployment rates jumping from 7.5% in 2007 to 18.3% today, increasing numbers of Scott County's 22,000 residents have found themselves unable to manage ordinary household expenses. There are no hard statistics documenting the extent of homelessness in the county, but increasing appeals to the area's social service organizations represent a growing crisis of significant proportions.

When the locally-based aid agency that established the shelter--the Morgan-Scott Project for Cooperative Christian Concerns--went before the county commission last summer to appeal for assistance with the project, community leaders had to be convinced of the existence of a homeless problem. Like many people, they perceived homelessness as primarily a plight of the urban poor.  Morgan-Scott had already been providing critical and costly assistance to a handful of individuals, and took the position that the economic downturn would only increase the number of local residents with nowhere to live.

The lobbying worked. County commissioners agreed to provide a building for the shelter and cover the cost of utilities. Under the terms of a $1 three-year lease, Morgan-Scott took possession of the old Capital Hill School Building, which had remained a empty shell of concrete since a tornado ripped off part of its roof eight years ago. With a $14,000 grant from the Housing Assistance Council, countless smaller donations from the local community, and a small army of dedicated volunteers, Morgan-Scott set to transforming the dilapidated structure into a safe refuge for those in need. 

Since opening doors in February, Jerry has welcomed about fifty people--including seven children--into the embrace of his new ad hoc community. The numbers who have turned up seeking help haven't yet reached the level initially anticipated, but that has taught Jerry meaningful lessons about the nature of his local community and culture. 

"The close-knit family relationships in this area contribute to the lack of homeless using this shelter. If they're nice to their families, their families take them in," he explains. "I know of people who now have two, three, even four families living under one roof."

Further, he says, "People here are very proud. They don't want to admit that they're homeless." During the temperate months, many of those who don't want to impose on their family would set up camp and live outdoors, rather than accept the stigma associated with shelter life. Jerry expects his beds will begin filling up in late Fall as people start to come in from the cold.

Lest I begin to doubt the significance of the local economic crisis, Jerry puts in a call to the brilliantly-named Cammie Music, Section 8 manager for the surrounding region. When I ask Cammie if she has recently witnessed an increased need for housing assistance, she responds with an emphatically drawn out, "Ohhhhh, yes." She estimates there has been a 40% increase in requests for Section 8 housing in the past year. "I never had to do a waiting list until this year," she says.  With a limited number of subsidized units available, the wait for housing could be nine to twelve months for those at the end of the line. 

To help flesh out my impression of the local economic landscape, Jerry lets me tag along to attend the monthly inter-agency meeting of aid organizations serving Scott County. A common refrain echoes from everyone I meet in the dining room of the Oneida senior center. In the words of Kathy Rose, the center's director: "We're struggling. We're really struggling."

Most of the meeting revolves around discussion of where to seek additional grants, sponsorships, or other forms of financial support. Current prospects appear dim, and the non-profit workers and public servants appear overworked, exhausted, and discouraged--but not defeated.  

Kathy Reed of Appalachia Habitat for Humanity--a warm grandmotherly woman who insists I should stay at her house during my visit--tells me that in the 14 years she has worked for the organization they consistently averaged about 70 applications per year. Since February, however, she has already received 52. The elderly usually make up the bulk of requests for assistance, but this year's influx comes from younger families who have fallen victim to the recession.

Kathy knows Appalachia Habitat won't be able to help everyone, but she doesn't let that stem her determination to do everything she can. Preparing for the arrival of two dozen volunteers from Fordham Prep in New York City, she stays focused on all the teenage boys will be able to accomplish during their three-week service vacation.

Sheneka Burchfield, who works for the mayor's office in Huntsville, reports that demand for assistance at area food banks has tripled over the past year.  At the Scott County Food Bank, for example, 300 people now receive critical supplies every month, up from 100 last year.

Housing Opportunities and People Enterprises (HOPE, Inc)--a non-profit that provides housing and employment assistance--has experienced a similar increase in demand. Twenty families received aid from HOPE last year. Since April 1 they have already served seven families, and have 32 more on their waiting list. Case manager Misty Blevins says she has seen "pure desperation" in the people who have appealed for help this year. "These are people who have worked their whole lives. They have never had to seek aid before and don't know what services are available to them."

The lack of awareness of available assistance programs, sometimes coupled with a proud reluctance to ask for help, can add financial and emotional strain on extended families as multiple branches of the tree crowd under one roof. Misty repeats the troubling news I heard earlier from Jerry: Some who don't have local relations, or who don't want to impose on kin, retreat into the woods to live. Others at the meeting agree that tents have been sprouting up in remote locales, offering me directions to a couple of spots where I might look for campsites.

Later that afternoon, concerned about my safety, Jerry offers to take me out looking for some of the newly homeless taking up residence in the wild. He first calls the local police dispatcher, who confirms that the department has become aware of people living in the woods, offering directions to a couple of likely encampments.

Jerry navigates his Chevy Cobalt down a narrow gravel road, bumping over deep scars riven by an atypically rainy Spring. For miles we descend the steep incline leading toward the banks of the New River, scraping the undercarriage so many times that Jerry vaguely worries we may lose his oil pan.

The deeper we get into the woods, Jerry expresses doubt that we will be able to find anyone. "They don't want to be found," he explains. "They go deep because they're afraid. They're living on land they don't own, and the police would roust them if they could. The cruisers can't make it way back in. If the police find them, DCS (Department of Children's Services) could take their kids. So they hide."

As the gravel road turns to dirt, and the dirt road downgrades to mud, we decide to turn around before we get stuck deep in the distant suburbs of nowhere. Jerry has to get back to the shelter anyway. He locked up before we left, and doesn't want a diabetic resident waiting outside in the heat if he returns before we do.

On the drive back to the shelter, Jerry summarizes his outlook for the future: "I think we've hit bottom. I can't imagine how it could get worse. If it does, I just don't know what we'll do."

A ring of his cell phone interrupts the conversation. A friend is calling to request prayers for a local woman who has suffered life-threatening complications from surgery earlier in the day. "Absolutely," he tells her. "You can count on me."

As he finishes up his conversation, I find myself wishing it possible to bellow that message from the highest peak in Scott County, with a voice loud enough to reach those elusive homeless hiding in the forest.

Jerry lives to help others--relishes the opportunity to do so, in fact.  No matter how bad things get, you can count on him. 

If you would like to offer assistance to one of the community service organizations mentioned in this piece, send me an email at recessionroadtrip@gmail.com and I will put you in contact.

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Christina Davidson is a writer, photographer, and book editor who specializes in national security, terrorism, and war. She also writes for the food blog Feed The Masses. More

Christina Davidson is a writer, photographer and book editor based in Washington, D.C. She specializes in editing books about national security, terrorism, and war, but writes for a broad array of publications, including the popular frugalicious foodie blog Feed The Masses. She is working on a book based on her Recession Road Trip project for TheAtlantic.com.
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