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Homelessness in Oak Ridge?

Friday evening I attended a most interesting panel discussion program at the Oak Ridge Unitarian Universalist Church, on the topic of homelessness in Oak Ridge and Anderson County. Based on the size of the crowd (yes, there was a crowd — and this was on a Friday evening), it’s clear that is is a subject of significant interest and concern for many people in our community. This was an exploration of the situation and an exchange of information — nobody was claiming to have instant solutions. Panelists were Sandie Shaver of the Tennessee Valley Coalition to End Homelessness, Liz Herbes of Aid to Distressed Families (ADFAC), Rick Morrow of Anderson County United Way, Rev. David Allred of High Places Church, Mary Helen Rose representing the Free Medical Clinic of Oak Ridge, and Sgt. Shannah Newman of the Oak Ridge Police Department.

Some of the tidbits I noted down:

  • Anderson County did its first annual “census” of the homeless last year, and counted only 15 people. A higher number is expected for this year’s count on January 27th, mostly because the people doing the counting now have a better idea where to find the homeless in our midst.
  • For purpose of this kind of census, “homeless” includes people who are living in shelters, in the cars, on the street, etc., but not the “couch homeless” — those who have no regular place to live, but stay in other people’s homes for brief periods, typically spending the night on the couch and moving from place to place every few days.
  • Sevier County had more than 1000 homeless in last year’s count. Campbell County had more than 100 (I didn’t note down the exact number).
  • There are fewer homeless here than in some other areas due to the lack of shelters. The experts hasten to say that this doesn’t mean that shelters attract homeless people. Rather, when services exist, the local people who have been in need of those services will appear to utilize them. Also, shelter clients prefer to be close to home, so if a shelter opens in their home town they may relocate from some other city.
  • The social service agencies in our community are active in working with families and individuals who are at risk of homelessness — to prevent them from sliding into homelessness (that’s a focus for ADFAC) and to find long-lasting solutions to their needs (that’s the overall goal of many United Way initiatives). Rick Morrow talked about “reaching middle class values” to the chronically poor — people whose families may have been poor for generations. Churches can be effective in working with families to help them become more self-sufficient.
  • Another part of the homeless and at-risk population (aside from the chronically poor) is young adults whose behavior (mostly drugs and stealing) has alienated their families — often these young people have joined the “couch homeless.”
  • A particular challenge¬† for our community involves people who have heard that Oak Ridge has good-paying jobs and move here to claim those jobs, but are unqualified. These people often are transient, but they may need help while they are here.
  • There are several sources of support for helping people pay their utility bills — one of those things that can help keep a family together and in their home. United Way discovered that $800,000 a year is spent in Anderson County to help people with their utility bills — and that doesn’t even include the money spent by churches.
  • In spite of rumors to the contrary, Oak Ridge police don’t drive homeless people to the Knox County line to get them out of our area. However, they do sometimes transport people to the Knox Area Rescue Ministries or other shelters in Knoxville — because we have no shelters locally. The police also work to assist individuals and families through the department’s chaplain program.
  • Some state and federal funding is based on a community’s homeless census.


  1. Matt Reedy says:

    As a former youth pastor, I was amazed at the level of homelessness in the rural area I grew up in. Folks came in to our church daily to seek assistance for a variety of needs and many of them could be classified as “couch homeless”.

    I held an event called “Homeless for a Night” where teens slept outside and were only allowed to enter the church for bathroom breaks and for a one hour soup kitchen meal. Teens formed teams and built cardboard condos with donated cardboard and duct tape and were only allowed to use blankets that were donated for the night. Several local churches participated and it was a good way to educate our teens about homelessness.

    I would love to see a church group in Oak Ridge give this event a try!

  2. Jennifer Martin says:

    Matt that’s a very good idea. It’s easy for them to sit back and say ‘That will never happen to me’. Hopefully it won’t but sometimes reality isn’t pretty. Not every homeless individual is an alcoholic or drug addict. Every situation is different. They still deserve to be treated with respect and not be made fun of or called names. Some of these men and women fought for our country. I applaud you for what you did. Thank you.

  3. […] with the League (sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Oak Ridge) on Tuesday, March 5. As I wrote two years ago, there are homeless people here — and by now social service agencies know more about who they […]

  4. wolfen says:

    We are homeless and in a car people think because we have a car that we should be able to have a place to live. We are constantly having to move. There’s no place to park in a car and be safe or not have the cops or someone else who is telling us to leave. We do draw ssi but noe one will even consider us because we are homeless and I have a service dog we are not allowed to even shower or eat at some shelters because of the fact I have a service dog. Where can we go for help knoxville will not help us and oak ridge had rather push us to knoxville.

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