Helping the Rural Homeless in Tennessee


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. 

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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.

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