There were 65 homeless persons counted in Cumberland County one day in January 2018. Of those, 12 were not staying in an emergency shelter.
But that low number can be deceiving.
“The count is unsuccessful because they’re hidden away at night when we’re doing our count,” explained Terry Burdett with Homeless Advocacy for Rural Tennessee (HART). “That’s just the minimum. You could multiply by five and that’s probably closer to the truth.”
Many of those individuals likely became homeless in Cumberland County, but the community’s location on Interstate 40 between Knoxville and Nashville also brings transients to the community.
“There seems to be greater concentration of homelessness in communities along I-40,” Burdett said.
Community leaders and concerned citizens recently held a conversation about homelessness in Cumberland County and its impact on the community.
Ralph Reagan, director of the Bread of Life Rescue Mission, serves about 60 homeless individuals, providing shelter, food and help accessing services.
“We try to help people to get from off the streets to a home where they can take care of themselves,” Reagan said.
In the past six months, six families have transitioned from living at the shelter to living in their own homes.
A shelter employee is on hand to drive residents to jobs, job training or interviews. The shelter helps residents clean up and access clothing for interviews, as well. They provide vouchers to their thrift store for clothing and residents transitioning into housing can get the household items and furniture they need to get started.
“We don’t charge for our services,” Reagan said. “We give them everything they need to go from point A to point B to keep them from falling back on the streets.”
But to stay at Bread of Life, individuals must agree to abide by the shelter’s rules: no drugs, no alcohol and no fraternization with other residents. Residents are subject to searches of their property and random drug and tuberculosis testing, as well.
Reagan also checks sex offender registries and individuals on the registry cannot stay at the shelter, though Bread of Life does offer alternative housing for those individuals.
“We serve women and children, and we want a safe environment for them,” Reagan said.
The shelter operates on donations from the community with no local, state or federal funding, with religious services a cornerstone of their program. Residents attend chapel every day at 7 p.m. and three services on Sunday, with exceptions for work schedules.
“Everything we do is for one reason: for people to hear the word of God,” Reagan said.
Curfew is 9 p.m.
“If you live at the mission, you’re going to be in at night,” Reagan said. There is someone on staff 24 hours a day. “We’ve got someone there with them all night long.”
Those unwilling to abide by the shelter’s rules cannot stay at Bread of Life. The shelter will provide food to individuals who aren’t staying with them.
Like other cities, Crossville and Cumberland County struggle with how to help homeless individuals who don’t stay at the mission and mitigate issues they may cause in the community.
Wayne Schobel, with the Art Circle Public Library, said there had been some issues in the past with homeless individuals causing a disturbance at the facility and causing patrons to avoid the library.
“We don’t forbid them from being there as long as they’re not causing a disturbance,” Schobel said.
He questioned the mission’s policy of feeding nonresidents.
“Aren’t you condoning the fact they’re not getting out and doing things to make themselves more productive in society?” he asked.
Regan said he believes providing food helps reduce crime.
“A hungry man’s going to steal,” Reagan said. “If they’re doing it anyway, they need to be arrested.”
City Manager Greg Wood said, “Some people feel we’re attracting homeless people. And it’s the people who aren’t in the mission who are going out on the street causing problems.”
Local businessman Lou Morrison said he’d had homeless individuals loitering on his property on Park St. behind TAP Publishing.
“I call it the migration path. When you tell them to leave, they make their way to the gas station to buy cigarettes and the front porch of my office becomes their resting place and trash can,” he said.
Reagan said, “There’s nothing I can do about that. They don’t live at the mission. They are actually people who are living on the street who will not let me help them.”
Reagan said he’s gone to homeless encampments during bitter cold nights to encourage them to come to shelter.
“They don’t want my help. They’re really mentally challenged and think I’m trying to hurt them instead of help them,” Reagan said.
Wood said he’s volunteered at the mission.
“I’ve seen your successes,” Wood said. “But how can we address the other problem?”
Randy York, member of the mission’s board of directors, said, “We can’t help those people, and we can’t help what they do.”
The mission launched in 2000 to alleviate issues of homelessness. Many churches were housing homeless individuals in motels prior to the mission opening its ministry.
Les Willett, outreach coordinator for HART, said law enforcement often serves as the first contact for homeless individuals. HART works to help identify programs that can assist individuals in finding permanent housing or transitional housing. The agency can access numerous federal and state programs to assist individuals who qualify.
HART serves 18 counties in the Upper Cumberland. Willett said other counties have said they do bring homeless individuals they encounter to Crossville because it has an emergency shelter. Crossville and Cookeville are the only two communities between Nashville and Knoxville to offer emergency shelter services.
Cumberland County Sheriff Casey Cox said his patrol deputies try to help transients continue on their way, sometimes driving individuals to Cookeville or east to Roane County.
Bus tickets take up a good chunk of the mission’s annual budget, Reagan said.
Morrison said the mission offered a “welcome mat,” but “cherry picked” who it would serve.
“The ones you turn away, you release on the rest of us,” he said.
Burdette said in other communities, the majority of homeless individuals call the community they live home.
York added, “If they’re from Cumberland County, that’s our problem whether they’re at the mission or not. If they’re not from Cumberland County, we want to keep them moving along, as far as I’m concerned.”
Wood said drug addiction and mental health issues are also part of the problem. Bread of Life Rescue Mission is not designed to care for mentally ill individuals, York said.
The group will reconvene next month to discuss possible actions to address the identified issues with homelessness.