Homelessness in Knoxville: A Conversation

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — (Editors note: WBIR multimedia journalist Alex Myers chose to tell this story in a more personal way than most of the stories you will find on WBIR.com.)

Near the beginning of the pandemic, I was sent on assignment to cover the fourth anniversary of Care Cuts, a group that provides free haircuts for the homeless in Knoxville. While there, I met a couple of middle-aged gentlemen who told me that they were homeless. Being a self-admitted talker and a people person, I held a short conversation. It was probably no more than five minutes long, but at its conclusion, I was thanked by the two men as if I had just completed some incredible act of kindness. I hadn’t. All I had done was listen, but as these men would go on to explain to me, simply listening to what they had to say meant far more than I knew.

 That short conversation inspired me. If taking just a couple of minutes to listen meant that much to those men, it had to mean a lot to others in the homeless population as well. I connected with David Martantette of Water Angel Ministries, who helped introduce me to several people who are currently homeless in the downtown area. Three of these people were kind enough to tell their stories on camera.

Bob Jones spoke with me first. He’s a middle-aged man who moved here from Youngstown, Ohio. His story is not unlike many in his situation. A mistake earlier in life has impaired his ability to get a job and get back up on his feet. 

A man who seemed very tough from the onset showed glimpses of a softer side as we spoke. He was vulnerable but wanted his message to get out. 

He noted that while food is good to have, there are many sources that bring food frequently to the homeless population downtown. Martanette and others with Water Angel Ministries were passing out donuts on the day that I met Jones, as an example. 

What Jones noted is that there are other needs that the homeless population has. From clean clothes, to help with technology or finding a job, it’s been a struggle for many.

“There’s just, no real help,” Jones said.

Next, I spoke with Poe Klum, a middle-aged woman originally from Cleveland, Ohio. She is a highly-educated and driven woman who has a heart for others. Unlike many who I talked to, Klum spoke highly of her parents and relatives. She had a positive outlook on them as well as her situation.

“I have a good mom and dad. I have nothing to complain about,” Klum noted.

A park ranger for about twenty years, her wisdom and life experience exuded intelligence throughout our conversation. She noted that some people living in that situation turn to drugs, alcohol, or something else in an attempt to cope with the pain. One of the more emotional moments from our discussion came when she started talking about others who were homeless in the area.

“I see people who are judged so harshly. I couldn’t get through what they go through,” said Klum.

Finally, I spoke with an older gentleman named Michael Williams. I was quickly told that most call him “preacher man”. He’s a local man, originally from Alcoa. Sadly, homelessness is nothing new for him.

“I’ve been homeless off and on all my life,” Williams said. 

Rays of hope, perseverance, and positivity flowed from Williams as he spoke. Something as he was talking made it seem like he was speaking not for himself alone, but as a representative of those who lived in the area where he was staying. As one of, if not the oldest person that I saw in the area where he was staying, there was clear and obvious respect from those around him.

“Every night before I go to bed, I say to God I thank you, Lord. All my needs have been met,” Williams said.

It was that sort of talk that helped me quickly realize why “preacher man” was his nickname. One of his most impactful statements came late in our conversation.

“God gave us this gift of life, and what we do with this life will be our gift to God,” said Williams.

Getting this opportunity to speak with members of Knoxville’s homeless population was a truly eye-opening experience. I’ve gone downtown for years, and the fact that homelessness is a reality comes as no surprise to me. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s not affecting many in our area. 

Just because it may not affect my daily life doesn’t mean that it has to be ignored. 

While many help those in need financially, there’s more to be done than just giving money. Sometimes the most valuable things we can give our time and respect. Nobody is perfect, this experience has shown me more than ever before that it’s vitally important that we respect our neighbors. 

It may not happen overnight, but it’s important as a community that we learn to better understand the less fortunate in our own back yards. Often times on a nice day, we’ll go for a drive, hike, or hunt to find the beauty in our area. Perhaps, the most charming thing about this place that we call home isn’t the landscape after all. 

For as stunning as the hills, mountains, and various landscapes are, it’s always been the people who have truly made East Tennessee beautiful.

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