5:57 p.m. It’s just after dusk when Drew Krikau appears at a trolley stop on a deserted street east of downtown, his small frame silhouetted by the graying sky, bundled up for the cold night ahead. A faded black jacket overlaps his army-green hoodie, the hood pulled up as temperatures begin a sharp descent with the onset of nightfall. A cheap camouflage tent and a few blankets are tucked in a reusable shopping bag slung over his right shoulder. He’s waited until dark to make his move, so no one can see where he’s heading, as he looks for a place to stake out as his own. A place, he hopes, hidden enough not to draw unwanted attention—from the police or anyone else out wandering the streets—until dawn, when he’ll break camp and move on before the sun rises to the east.
Krikau rubs the salt-and-pepper stubble of his beard as he heads uphill toward an overgrown, tree-covered lot, weighing his options. Trails lead into the darkness, into this urban thicket dimly lit by the distant glow of sodium street lights and downtown’s skyline, overshadowed by a towering public housing complex, and visible in the periphery of the Knoxville Police Department headquarters in the distance. He’s thought it through, he says, and this place is a best bet for him and his fiancée, Stacy, to hole up for the night.
“When there’s so many people on the street every night, finding a safe place to sleep by yourself, they’re few and far between,” he says as he begins unfurling his tent in near-complete darkness among the sticks, stones, and trampled Styrofoam cups on this trash-strewn hillside. The area is covered by night, but the trees have dropped their leaves for winter, which means using a lantern or even a flashlight may prove too bright to avoid detection. He can’t risk it.
For nearly two years now, Krikau, 45, has lived homeless on the streets of Knoxville. He’s had two “permanent” living arrangements during that time, although when you’re living outside you quickly learn nothing is permanent—fortunes often ebb and flow with daily changes, and few things come easy. Both of his more permanent homes were self-made campsites erected in the dense brush of vacant lots close to the city’s core, near services and resources that, at times, he’s come to rely on. But his camp and most everything he owned went up in flames on Christmas day, and since then he’s been bouncing around, unsure of where he’ll sleep one night to the next as he hunts for a new safe place to rebuild.
His life story, the chain of events that left him homeless after getting out of jail in 2014, and his daily struggles are personal and unique, but they’re not unlike the trials faced by hundreds of others Knoxvillians in similar situations.
Krikau still can’t believe he’s been homeless for two years. After a while, he says, the days start to blur together. For the first year and a half he was overly ambitious and optimistic, he says, searching almost every weekday for some type of job to get him a leg up and back into an apartment. But as days turned to weeks, weeks to months, and months to years, his resolve wore down. Now, he spends some days idling in a suspended state, mostly unemployable, limited by his electronic ankle monitor and his criminal past, and wondering when—or if—things will take an upswing.
“It’s the glamorous life of being homeless: always looking for a place to lay your head and wondering if you’re going to get picked up [by the police] for something,” he says.
This may be a day like any other. This is a day in the life of Drew Krikau.
7:15 p.m. It gets dark early in January. Krikau sits on the forest floor, enveloped in darkness, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and texting a few friends and his fiancée on the government-issued cellphone he got through the food-stamp office. “That way I can at least leave a phone number when I go apply for a job,” he says.
It’s been about three weeks since his tent and most of his worldly belongings burned in the fire. (He had his ID and other important documents with him at the time.) December was unseasonably warm, making things that much easier, but rains kicked up and temperatures plummeted in the new year. Luckily, Krikau and his fiancée found temporary reprieve from the cold. Over the previous week, a friend of his fiancée’s has been letting the couple sleep on the floor of his one-bedroom apartment, which he shares with his wife and dog, Chance, in a public housing complex nearby. The friends have been homeless before and offer to help out with a place to stay when they can. But this run of good fortune is coming to an end. The apartment’s landlord now knows Drew and Stacy have been crashing there, and since they’re not on the lease they have to go.
When he has a more permanent campsite, Krikau says he usually wakes up, gathers the few things he’ll need for the day—cellphone, identification, jackets, and other items—and heads for a food pantry in search of breakfast. Depending on the day, he may head to the career center on Middlebrook Pike to search for jobs and fill out applications, or otherwise try to find a spot to stay “out of sight and out of trouble,” which often means a regular shuffle between different areas downtown. But most all of his moves are tied to electronics. Every 12 hours he must find an outlet to recharge the electronic ankle monitor, issued by his probation officer to track his whereabouts, or risk violating the law. Many go-to places and resources for the homeless are off-limits because of his conviction. He can’t go to the library, nor within 1,000 feet of schools, parks, daycares, or many other locations kids may frequent.
Krikau is a convicted sex offender, an ominous title he says he earned more than five years ago with a few ill-fated clicks on the computer. Court records, at least in part, bear that out. In 2008, he was charged with two counts of aggravated sexual exploitation of a minor, class C felonies for possessing child pornography. (He was later convicted.) According to the Loudon County indictment, he “did unlawfully and knowingly possess material which includes computer generated photograph(s), of more than twenty five in number, depicting a minor engaging in sexual activity.” Two similar charges were dismissed in court.
Originally from South Chicago Heights, a small town just south of Chicago, Krikau moved to Loudon County in the early 1990s and has been in East Tennessee ever since. He claims to have unknowingly ran afoul of the law when using a service called LimeWire in 2008, a peer-to-peer network that allows people to search and download content available on other people’s computers around the world (similar to Napster, but not limited to music files). He was using it to seek out pornography, he admits, but says he had no way of knowing the pictures he downloaded were of people underage or illegal. For the law, it didn’t much matter whether he did so knowingly or unknowingly.
He ended up spending 16 months in jail and was then released on probation for four years. He moved to Knoxville soon after, in 2011, to search for work. He’s no longer allowed to use the Internet without restriction. In 2012, he violated his probation and was arrested after he says his probation officer learned he was playing Big Barn World on his cellphone, a social farming game he didn’t realize was connected to the Internet. Before that he had an apartment and a decent job as a floor salesman at Knox Rail Salvage, he says. It wasn’t glamorous, but it was work and helped keep a roof over his head. After violating his probation things went downhill. He’s been homeless and largely unemployed ever since.
“My felony charges and restrictions make it extremely difficult to get a job,” he says. He often resorts to selling food stamps or hand-rolled cigarettes, usually 12 for $1 to whoever is willing to pay, in efforts to make a few bucks here and there. (On his most profitable day he made $30 from selling cigarettes, though it took nearly 12 hours of work.) He’s worked as a vendor, and then a distributor overseeing other vendors, selling The Amplifier, a newspaper dealing with homeless issues usually sold on the street by homeless men and women for a $1 donation. But the stress of that job, technically a volunteer position, became more headache than it was worth and he eventually gave it up.
According to his court-ordered sentence, Krikau’s probation was scheduled to end in January 2015, but because of his offense and homeless status he’s been bound to the system by his ankle monitor and continuing probation. It costs him $45 each time he visits his probation officer, which is required at least monthly and sometimes more frequently because he is homeless, Krikau says. Every Tuesday evening he attends sex offender treatment classes, $30 each session, and he must also pay an annual fee of $150 to be included on the Tennessee Sexual Offender Registry. He finds out this week if he will finally have his ankle monitor removed and his probation terminated, but his convictions will stay.
“Even people guilty of armed robbery and things like that don’t have the same restrictions I do,” he points out. “They can still look for work anywhere, but for me, a lot of people aren’t going to hire a sex offender. Others who are willing to work with me are often too close to a school or playground or library. There’s always an issue. Some days I wake up and just say, ‘Why bother?’”
Dr. Roger Nooe says it’s tough for homeless folks struggling with any number of circumstances, especially those with the status of sex offender. Over the past 30 years Nooe has worked with, and in many ways pioneered research into, local homeless issues and trends as part of his work with Knoxville/Knox County Homeless Coalition.
“Once someone is on the sex offender registry, you’re talking about a real difficult situation there,” Nooe says. “One of the things they face is often housing barriers, both in terms of location, policy, and who will rent to them. Of course they’re also barred from a lot of shelters, like KARM (Knox Area Rescue Ministries) and others who won’t take them. Then there’s the job situation. Any type of felony is often a difficulty in finding employment, but when you put sex offender registry on there it makes things even more difficult. And when you’re homeless it’s even more difficult because you’re sort of at the bottom of the barrel trying to figure out how to get up.”
Since 1986 Nooe has helped lead the coalition’s biannual survey of the homeless to collect data on underlying issues, the complex web of factors usually contributing to a person’s homelessness, along with a slew of demographic, geographic, and family information to help better understand and track trends within Knoxville’s homeless community. The next survey is slated for the last week of January, when roughly 40 volunteers will fan out to conduct more than 200 interviews, offering $3 to each person willing to answer all 141 questions.
The most recent report from 2014 does not include statistics for sex offenders living on the street, but 13 percent of people interviewed cited criminal behavior or past convictions as their main causes of homelessness. Nineteen percent said they’d been denied housing because of past illegal activity. Loss of job (25 percent) and drug or alcohol addiction (38 percent) were cited by people most as root causes of their homelessness. Only 6 percent of those interviewed said mental illness was the primary cause, although 62 percent of people said they had been treated for a mental illness within the past year.
“You can draw lots of conclusions from the data, and for me there are two things that really stick out. Our last study (in 2014) showed there were a number of people who have been treated for mental illness, and that has increased every year. Sort of paralleling that is an increase in drug addiction. Alcohol has always been a problem, but what we’ve seen in recent years is more prescription drugs on the streets,” Nooe says. “You have so much homelessness, substance abuse, and the criminal justice system that are intertwined. Jails and correctional facilities have become the new asylums of today. The jails are the largest housers of mentally ill, and mentally ill homeless people are more susceptible to that. It really draws your attention to that population.”
Krikau says all he really needs at this point is a job. He doesn’t drink or do drugs anymore, having quit in 2009 after his arrest. He says he used to be an alcoholic, smoked marijuana, and was addicted to pornography—not child porn, he quickly notes. “That was by accident!” In 2012 he graduated from a year-long program to treat his porn addiction at Angelic Ministries in Happy Holler, which helped him get on his feet after he got out of jail. That is, until he was re-arrested on a probation violation for playing Big Barn World and landed back on the streets two years ago.
“By now I expected to have a job and be in an apartment,” he says. “I just want a decent job so I can have a place to get me and my fiancée off the street, and hopefully a big enough place to help some of my friends out who are homeless with a place to stay.”
6:27 a.m. “We’ve got to get up,” Krikau says to his fiancée, Stacy Holloway. She didn’t make it to camp until late, around 1 a.m., after finishing work at an occasional gig she has cleaning up arenas, the convention center, and other auditoriums around town after big events. Last night the Lady Vols played. She made $20 for two and a half hours of work, enough to buy a Dr. Pepper, pay $3 toward gas and a ride to camp, return $10 she owed her mom’s boyfriend, and put $5 in her pocket. “It was a good night,” she says.
A sheet of gray clouds looms overhead in the predawn twilight, a hangover from the night’s rain that took temperatures down into the 30s. It didn’t dip below freezing, but make no mistake, this water-logged January morning is frigid.
“Oh, it’s cold!” Holloway shrieks from inside the tent. The hard, rooty ground doesn’t bother her anymore, she says, but she didn’t get much sleep on account of the cold. Krikau sets their blankets on top of a bright blue tarp to keep them dry and starts knocking water from the outside of the tent before breaking it down, fingers numb.
In two and a half hours Krikau needs to be in “Tent City,” his nickname for the expansive encampments under Interstate 40 near the KARM rescue mission in North Knoxville. For more than a year now he’s helped organize weekly meetings of the Homeless Collective, a hodgepodge group of currently and formerly homeless individuals set up by the East Tennessee Peace and Justice Center to deal with issues affecting their community. Its next meeting is today at 9 a.m. But first he needs to charge his ankle monitor or risk violating the law yet again. He heads for a friend’s place in the apartments nearby who’s agreed to let them hang for the hour or so it takes to recharge. Stacy nods off to sleep again on the couch.
9:03 a.m. Krikau makes his way past the posted “no trespassing” signs and across the Norfolk Southern railroad tracks toward some tents scattered in the brush along the edge of the lot. Waiting for his ankle bracelet to fully charge put him behind schedule. (“You’re not supposed to disconnect it until it’s done charging,” he explains.) He’s hoofed it across town, noting he could take the trolley part of the way, but figuring it faster to walk the back alleys and cut-throughs he regularly uses to move around the center city.
“I’m old-school in my beliefs. God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” he declares during the walk, unprovoked. “Now that the U.S. has approved gay marriage, in my mind, it’s Sodom and Gomorrah. I’m just waiting for the fire and brimstone.”
Eleven people are sitting around a campfire under I-40 when Krikau arrives. Most are perched in camping chairs, worn and torn. One guy sits on a busted office chair with only three wheels, caked in soot and dust. This wing of “Tent City” is an expansive spread that no fewer than a dozen people call home, and possibly many more on any given night, with sleeping pallets and camping domes spread out along Second Creek. As the meeting starts, a pair of feet stick out a neighboring tent, unmoving, just a short stretch from the fire. The canvas of the feet-owner’s tent is torn, one pole half busted and jutting out to the side. A small black cat named Houdini sticks his head out the next tent over, a half-eaten cookie in his jowls. He’s one of the many camp cats that live here, free to scavenge any morsel he can from the scattered pop-tops and trash-strewn scenery.
What’s said in these meetings is confidential, explains the Rev. Pat Ramsden, a volunteer with the Peace and Justice Center who serves as secretary for the Collective. Today she records on shaky cellphone members of the group reading from the Homeless Bill of Rights they have been working on, a set of 12 basic rights and principles they say every person deserves regardless of their housing status. Those include rights to “use, rest, and move freely” in public spaces, sleep in a motor vehicle (provided it’s legally parked), access medical care, and have 24 hours to recover any personal items stored on private property, among other things.
“This is not something that has come down from up high,” Ramsden says. “It’s something this collective did, and the plan is to present it to City Hall, but I don’t know when yet.”
The city of Knoxville hasn’t sat idle on issues of homelessness, though some people who are homeless and some homeless advocates question some of its tactics and contend more could be done to get people into housing. The area’s first long-term plan to address those challenges took shape in 2008 with the approval of the Knoxville and Knox County Ten-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness, a thick guidebook put together over several years by advocates, officials, and service providers that sought to change the approach to serving homeless in the area.
“We created that plan to focus on chronic homelessness and begin to implement a sort of housing-first approach,” says Michael Dunthorn, head of the city’s Office on Homelessness and a former chair on the task force that developed the Ten-Year Plan. “Housing-first is the idea that, particularly for chronically homeless folks, the graduated system—from street to shelter to program to, eventually, something more stable, like permanent or transitional housing—doesn’t really work for that population.” Instead, a more successful model has been getting people into housing first, then providing access to supportive services, he says.
With that shift in focus came a push to develop more supportive housing, places to live like apartments or townhomes that usually include a caseworker or access to needed services to help an individual get off the street first and receive the support they need, whether it be for substance abuse, mental health issues, or whatever underlying issues may be contributing to their homelessness. It’s an approach Dunthorn says is proving successful, though not always popular. Public and political pushback after the construction of two such developments, Minvilla Manor north of downtown and Flenniken Landing in South Knoxville, eventually led to the Ten-Year Plan being shelved in 2012.
“The Ten-Year Plan had some great accomplishments, like Minvilla, but then it got really controversial,” says Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero. “That taught us the benefit of working together, and when I became mayor I wanted to pull everyone back together on a positive note so we could develop a comprehensive plan for Knoxville that didn’t address just chronic homelessness.”
Since then, the city has developed a new set of guidelines, expanding its focus beyond just issues facing chronically homeless individuals but still maintaining its housing-first approach, Dunthorn says. Rogero formed the Office on Homelessness, which Dunthorn now oversees, and convened the Mayor’s Roundtable on Homelessness, a quarterly meeting of advocates and service providers aimed at discussing issues, keeping everyone on the same page, and working toward common goals. It met most recently in January, where representatives with Cherokee Health Systems outlined plans to add a dozen respite-care beds to accommodate people just released from the hospital in need of continued care or recovery. It expects construction to be complete by year’s end.
Through collective efforts, the city and a long list of nonprofit and faith-based service providers have been working to better track the delivery of services through the Knoxville Homeless Management Information System, a statistical database separate from the biannual homeless survey that is maintained by the University of Tennessee, and establish clear paths for folks looking to get off the streets. But supportive housing programs like Minvilla and Flenniken are still in short supply and high demand, and for someone like Krikau those programs may not be an option due to his criminal past.
Dunthorn says there’s currently no plans to build out similar developments.
However, now that the state of Tennessee, under direction from Gov. Bill Haslam (who, while mayor of Knoxville, formed a task force that ultimately developed the Ten-Year Plan) has renewed a long-stalled push for a statewide plan dealing with homeless issues, there may be more funding and other options in the near future. But that remains to be seen.
From Krikau’s vantage point, he says he’s seen more of a crackdown on the homeless than improved efforts to help out.
“The mayor talks about the revitalization of downtown and Old City, but what she doesn’t talk about is the ‘clean up’ going on behind the scenes—‘clean up’ meaning removing the homeless people,” he says. “Over the past six months I’ve seen more citations and notices to the homeless than I have in the past two years. The criminalization of the homeless has increased.”
10:11 a.m. Just as the Homeless Collective gets ready to part ways, a convoy of city workers and law enforcement pull up to camp. Everyone jumps to their feet and begins to shuffle, chattering about the arrival, wondering if someone called the law or if this encounter will means their days are numbered, that soon their temporary homes under the freeway will be razed and they’ll be forced to pick up what they can carry and seek shelter elsewhere.
This land belongs to three separate agencies, Knoxville Police Sgt. Sammy Shaffer explains: the city of Knoxville owns portions, so does Norfolk Southern, and the state of Tennessee is in charge of any ground under an interstate highway. These folks don’t have permission to camp here and soon they’ll have to go.
“We [the police] don’t take the initiative on this sort of thing unless there’s a lot of crime, then we’ll say ‘enough is enough.’ We come in response to complaints,” Shaffer tells a group gathered to ask what’s going on. “Bottom line is, in the next couple of weeks we’re going to have to clear this one out.”
Norfolk Southern Special Agent Blake Barham says there have been issues with drugs and an increasing number of calls about this camp, one the railroad had left alone up until this point, along with another nearby they soon plan to raze. Knoxville Public Service workers Alex Neubert and Chad Weth snap pictures of the tents with a small point-and-shoot camera.
“They’ve been doing this to us for years and it needs to stop,” says Martha Allred, a resident for several weeks. “We ain’t got nowhere else to go.”
Shaffer tells the group he can’t give anyone permission to camp on someone else’s property. All he knows is they can’t stay here. The police cleared out 58 illegal camps last year, he says. A lot of those complaints come in during the colder months, once trees and brush drop their leaves for winter and more passersby can see into the often forgotten corners of vacant plots and industrial backlots. In two weeks he’ll be back with written notice of the impending clean up. That will give these folks 72 hours to collect what they can and vacate.
“Other than a little trash around, we’re not hurting anyone, but they still say we have to go,” Krikau says as the police pull away and he heads toward downtown. “This is just one example of the things we have to deal with on a daily basis.”
11:47 a.m. Market Square hasn’t quite awakened from its morning slumber. It still feels early on this brisk, overcast day. Krikau sees two people belonging to the collective who missed the morning meeting sitting on stage, listening to Smash Mouth on a small flip phone. “I got into some brownies last night,” and overslept, the young man says with a big grin, unapologetic.
Krikau circles the Square peeking in trash cans, keeping a watchful eye for police who he fears may charge him with a crime for rummaging through the waste bins. He picks up a pack of Pall Mall cigarettes, shakes it to see if there’s anything inside, and tosses it back in the bin. No luck.
He walks east, back towards his friend’s tiny apartment to meet up with his fiancée. He’s learned he’ll have a place to sleep for at least two more nights, through the weekend, while the apartment office is closed and no one is the wiser. It’s welcomed news. Forecasters say the coming days will be cold, dipping below freezing at night and barely reaching 35 degrees on Monday, when they’ll be back out again looking for a place to go.
The overgrown lot where Krikau spent the night does not look so overgrown in the daylight, his campsite of late clearly visible from the now-bustling roadway. As he passes, about a dozen people on the Knox County Sheriff’s Office inmate work crew make their way onto the property, chainsaws in hand, to start cutting down trees and clearing undergrowth. Once this place is gone he’s not sure where he’ll go, but he’ll figure it out, he supposes. It’s just part of living on the streets.
1:47 p.m. Back at the apartment, his friend sticks a DVD of Jackie Chan’s Project A into a dusty old Playstation 2 and presses play. In this 1983 kung-fu thriller, Chan is a lieutenant in the 19th-century Hong Kong marines. He’s fighting pirates. It runs for 106 minutes.
2:11 p.m. Krikau opens a red bag of Doritos and starts eating. Chan is confronting a corrupt naval official. Another hour passes sitting on the couch. Stacy lays her head on Drew’s shoulder and nods off. Drew leans over on Stacy and falls asleep to the movie sounds of chops, kicks, and cracks.
4:25 p.m. “Bored to tears yet?” Krikau asks jokingly. The movie is over. Stacy is still asleep. For the past 10 minutes he’s been standing in the kitchen packing cigarettes into his rolling machine, a cheap plastic contraption that helps roll even smokes every time. He places the cigarettes, all facing in one direction, inside a small Tupperware container he carries in his pocket.
4:58 p.m. CHiPs is coming on.
5:10 p.m. Krikau grabs the charger for his ankle monitor and plugs it in. He needs to juice up if they’re going to make it back downtown by 7 p.m. for a dinner meal from a group called Room at the Table.
His friend starts talking about his grandmother’s cooking. You know, the good old Southern staples most locals grew up with. But for Krikau, from Illinois, it’s not second nature. The friend, who asked to remain anonymous, starts in on how his grandma taught him to cook cornbread (but never gave up her secret bread pudding recipe), how to clean a catfish, and the perks of meat sauce and sweet tea. He promises a feast for tomorrow night, one he’s already started on now—soaking black eyed peas and thawing fatback. A taste of that down-home cooking.
At least for the next two days, Drew and Stacy have a roof and some good eats. Then they’ll have to find a new place to camp or figure other arrangements to get them out of the cold. Currently they have no leads. He’ll keep trying for a job to get off the streets, unwilling to give up, he says, even if he feels odds are slim and the deck is stacked against him. What else can you do?
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