More than 100 people gather for a candlelight vigil Thursday night to remember the homeless men and women who died on the streets of Knoxville in 2015. Photo by Clay Duda.

For the Homeless, a Vigil and an Ouster

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Barely 12 hours after an assemblage of mourners passed under the Interstate 40 overpass on North Broadway Street to pay respects to the homeless men and women who died on the streets of Knoxville this past year, city crews and police showed up to clear tents, debris, and other remnants from a growing encampment of people under that same bridge.

A city backhoe piles remains from a homeless camp cleanup under I-40 Friday morning. Photo by Clay Duda.

The scenes that played out Thursday evening and early morning Friday offer a sharp juxtaposition to a complicated issue, yet people on all sides say they have the best interest of the homeless and the community in mind. In the evening, a call for respect and dignity for those that died. The next morning, a realization of the need to address some issues of crime, health, and sanitation, with a hope to connect some of those in need with services that might help.

These are different pieces to the same puzzle: the best outcomes for people on the street and their neighboring businesses and residents.


Homeless-in-Knoxville-4868Clay Duda

More than 100 people gathered last night at St. John’s Lutheran Church to take part in a candlelight vigil remembering those who died. Led by bagpipes, the group walked down North Broadway, past the Knoxville Area Rescue Mission, crossing under the I-40 overpass to make the return trip to the church for prayer and program.

“The whole spirit of what we’re trying to do is provide dignity for all of those involved, to remember and celebrate their lives,” says Matt Tillery, director of community services for Cherokee Health Systems and one of the vigil organizers. “Those we know by name are 30, but we’ll have 31 candles up there. That last one is symbolic for the others that are out there, and we know there are more.”

It marks the seventh year of the Homeless Persons’ Memorial & Candlelight Vigil in Knoxville, put on by Cherokee Health, Lost Sheep Ministry, the Volunteer Ministry Center, and St. John’s Lutheran Church in conjunction with national events on or around Dec. 21 each year. It was officially recognized locally in 2009 with a proclamation from then-mayor Bill Haslam.

Come daybreak, it likely wasn’t a surprise to the dozens of men and women camping under the I-40 bridge when city dump trucks and police cruisers showed up. The Knoxville Police Department issued a notice 72 hours earlier of the impending cleanup, going tent-to-tent on Thursday afternoon to talk with folks and let them know what to expect, according to Sgt. Sammy Shaffer.


Homeless-in-Knoxville-5051Clay Duda

“We definitely keep considerations for the homeless in mind,” Shaffer says. “All of this is in response to complaints. This isn’t anything we randomly do. On this encampment, we’d gotten a number of complaints on its visual appearance, fire-related complaints, and also police calls.”

Shaffer said camping was common in the area, but he’d never seen it grow to its current size. Neither had the city’s homeless coordinator, Mike Dunthorn, nor Alex Neubert, the city’s public service area manager, both of whom were on-site for the cleanup. They estimated a total of 33 tents.

“We really try to use this as an opportunity to route people to good services, to get them the necessities and long-term care they need and deserve,” says Knoxville’s Public Works Director David Brace. “We always try to be very respectful and respect the dignity of folks that live under bridges, but we also have to deal with health and safety issues. They have fires and quite a bit of garbage along with human feces and waste. Second Creek gets a ton of pollution from these camps, mostly fecal contamination and litter.”

For Josh Adams, picking up and moving has long been a way of life, and these types of cleanups are just part of it. The 32-year-old says he’s been on the streets since he turned 18, mostly here in Knoxville, though he’s spent some time traveling. He digs through a mound of debris collected by a city backhoe and an inmate cleanup crew brought over by the Knox County Sheriff’s Office to help out, managing to salvage a mangled tents, some boots, clothing, and other items he loads on a large tarp and drags toward KARM.

Josh Adams drags a tarp full of items salvage from a debris pile during a city cleanup of a homeless camp under I-40 in Knoxville. He says most of the goods belong to other people and he plans to return them. Photo by Clay Duda.

“I think it’s kind of weird they do this right when it gets cold, but I guess that’s all I can really say,” Adams says, adding that he does what he can to keep from camping out or sleeping on the streets. “It’s just kind of unknown what will happen between random people walking up on you and the cops, so I try to sleep wherever I can and not campout.”

Adams says he knows everything he pulled from the pile likely belongs to other people and he doesn’t expect to keep any of the goods he’s salvage.

As cleanup wraps and crews move on to their next area, a group of men that packed up camp can walk off along the train tracks into the distance, their belongings packed into plastic bags and tarps tossed over their shoulders.

All photos by Clay Duda.

Former Mercury staff reporter Clay Duda has covered gangs in New York, housing busts in Atlanta, and wildfires in Northern California. And lots of stuff about Knoxville.

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