Deep Freeze Especially Hard On Knoxville's Homeless

Jan 28, 2014

Michael Barton is among the homeless who won't be staying in a shelter tonight.
Credit WUOT News, Matt Shafer Powell

Huddled against the wind and snow in his black leather jacket and gray hoodie, Michael admits he doesn’t know where he’ll stay tonight.  When the temperatures dip into the single digits, as they’re supposed to do this evening, he tries to find a friend who’ll give up a sofa or a place on the floor.  But often, he finds himself sleeping outside.  “I don’t know where I’m going to stay,” he says, a toothpick and a cigarette balanced on his lower lip.  “I’m trying to find a place.”  Until then, he’ll stay warm with this simple rule:  keep moving.

A few feet away, Jim and Chris share cigarettes and laughs with a group of friends near the entrance of the Knox Area Rescue Ministries (KARM)  facility on North Broadway. Both men hail from Tennessee and neither are used to this kind of weather.  “I stay under the bridge,” Jim says.  “and I sleep under a bunch of blankets.” 

“We’ve had to add a lot more blankets this year,” adds Chris, who sleeps in a tent near the railroad tracks behind the Salvation Army, “and a lot more firewood.”   Both say they rely on fires to stay warm. 

Michael, Chris and Jim are among the roughly 42% of Knoxville’s homeless population who spend the night somewhere other than a shelter.  With wind chill temperatures falling to zero and below, it’s a particularly dangerous prospect.   According to the National Coalition for the Homeless approximately 700 homeless people (or those exposed to the risk of homelessness, as defined by the Coalition) die each year from hypothermia, a condition in which the body’s core temperature is too low to maintain normal functioning.

To prevent something like that from happening in Knoxville, KARM officials have implemented a cold-weather plan that allows them to exceed their 200-bed capacity in the men’s facility.  On Monday night, the agency provided sleeping arrangements for 259 men.  Some were offered a space to sleep in the chapel; others were given shelter across the street at the Salvation Army.  “We don’t turn anyone away who needs a place to sleep,” says Burt Rosen, KARM’s President and CEO.

It doesn’t mean everyone is invited in.  Those too inebriated or unruly to safely stay in the shelter are referred to the Knoxville Police Department, where they’ll spend the night in jail.  While Rosen acknowledges it’s not ideal, it’s safer than being out in the cold.  “We don’t want anyone going out there and getting killed,” he says.

Chris says he’s not too worried about freezing to death tonight.  “It’s warm in the tent,” he says, “until you step outside.  Then you freeze.  But I stay pretty warm for the most part.”