East TN News
East TN News

Homelessness -- The Bare Facts

By John M Disque


I spent most of my day on Sunday speaking with a 27-year-old female, 3-year UT student who spends her days at the library, trying to find a job/hope and sleeping in her car.

If you can sing, write a song about it and sing it loud. If you’re a millionaire, make a meal or create a job, if you’re a writer - find and write the truth. The list goes on to touch every single one of you. You know what you can do. Do you need someone to say, “it’s time?” Okay, it’s time.

With all the research, band-aids, stats, organizations, ten-year plans and all the political and business focus, why is no one asking the experts? Our normal “business as usual” society looks for truth in numbers then celebrates finding the numbers while applying for government grants that produce larger numbers to apply for bigger grants. The numbers they study and report were supposed to create solutions, but they didn’t. They didn’t even create an accurate awareness.

No solution has yet been drawn up or planned because the people we hand the numbers to don’t know what to do. I compare this predicament to a doctor who focuses on medicating the symptoms of the problem while never fixing what is causing the symptoms. They’re all looking at numbers which, in most cases, are inaccurate and treating human beings as if they’re a piece of the stock market.

The answers to these problems are held in the very hearts and minds of the homeless and poverty stricken people of East Tennessee, but they don’t wear Armani suits and diamond bracelets. They might have at some point in their life but the suits and bracelets have been pawned or sold years ago while becoming a part of their downward spiral. The unspoken assumption is “The homeless couldn’t possibly know what the solution is; otherwise, they wouldn’t be homeless, would they?”  That is not a correct assumption.  Being a victim of the problem does make you an expert on the problem. We are assuming that the person was in control of their circumstances and, in most cases, our assumption is very wrong.

It was usually one bitter circumstance after another until the control they once held over their own lives no longer existed. The majority of the homeless and poor people in East Tennessee want and need control over their own life and perhaps the lives of their families. That means the acknowledgement and appreciation of the very human being. It means a decent job that gives them the opportunity to save some money and prepare for emergencies. It means health care. It means standing up to big business and corporate greed. That’s it. In the meantime, they have to eat and find some sort of shelter against the cold; therefore, the immediate focus is on emergency needs to survive until they can somehow gain control.

The leading causes progressing the homeless population are the bad economy, drug and alcohol use, mental and physical health problems, the nonfunctioning American healthcare system, domestic violence and plain old simple bad luck. Each is relative to the other.

A physical health problem relates to the health care system, which relates to the economy and the declining job market. A person who spent their life learning their trade suddenly finds themselves with their life savings spent on medical bills and no income.  Every other aspect of their life becomes part of a downward spiral until they’re left with nothing.  A person can easily be pushed from middle class to poverty while doing everything in their power to survive.

Naturally the leading cause of the increasing homeless population is the economy, but it’s rooted in the lack of support and simply being born into conditions that increase the odds of failure.

Imagine for a moment that you were born under conditions that weren’t completely ideal yet you worked hard, managing to make a decent life for yourself.  However, one day it happened. You were injured on the job or the company that you gave your life to decides to call it quits.

From there one could say it’s time to find another job with another company, but they’re all getting hit by the same bad economy and no one is hiring. From there you could say it’s time to learn a new trade or career; however, with no money to feed themselves who is going to pay for school ? Even if they mange to get student assistance, how are they supposed to feed and house themselves in the meantime? All energy is then focused on pure survival with food topping the priority list. The choice is eventually made. You can survive without a roof and, in most cases, you can survive without your medication, but you cannot survive without food.  The landlord is close at hand with an eviction notice.

Today there are thousands of people in our community with their heads in their hands praying that the economy gets better or they’ll get some kind of break or good fortune. They turn to politicians, the media and local business people who hand them numbers.

Imagine, after 20 years with your company you find yourself with the inability to get out of bed and make coffee because you slipped a disk yesterday while attempting to keep your balance on a 300-foot scaffold. How are you supposed to get to work and, once there, how are you supposed to go back to laboring? From here, as doctor bills, prescriptions, and everyday bills dwindle any savings or assets, life becomes one tragedy after another and you find yourself downgrading into poverty. No one is going to hire a crippled person or risk the lawsuit that you attempted to file against your former employer. It’s too late anyway. You can’t afford a good lawyer, and the company you worked for has folded and filed for bankruptcy.

You still have to eat. Your brand new used broken down trailer still comes with rent and utility bills. For the majority of people, public assistance is a laughable joke and you are one step away from the streets. Yesterday you had it all. Today you are broken and scared, but the very topper is that seemingly no one seems to understand or care. You’re seen as lazy or stupid and lumped into a percentage of Americans that society doesn’t know what to do with.

  If you think it can’t happen to you, think again.

I could use a million different scenarios, but the point is to show you that it could be you. Ironically, concerning my own study, one of the leading causes of homelessness is the fact that no one seems to understand it or pay it much mind until they themselves are faced with it. At that they wake up to the reality of the situation. By then you’ve lost all power, and no one wants to hear or deal with you. From there you are apt to discover sure-fire ways to stop or slow down the problem but you have no power. You’re barely seen as human. Any creativity turns to a percentage, and you’re ignored and voiceless.

You’ve gone from a little bit of power that you should have used from the start to a declining power to no power at all. The key would be to use your power and your voice and your understanding while you have it. To use it when you’ve lost everything is shamefully impossible. Once you’ve hit bottom and are out on the streets it’s nothing but wall after wall after wall where no one seems to be clearing any path or doing much more than providing emergency assistance. Where is the government money going? What are the politicians and business people doing?

Now you never again have to wonder why there’s so much anger on the streets. Can you really blame them? Are you saying you wouldn’t be angry too? To hear that only makes the people more frustrated and further proves that you don’t understand. They would use that energy to help us all understand it and solve the problem, but they don’t have that opportunity. There’s simply no choice but to try to numb it, escape it, use it for negative outlets or just stop caring about any of it. Any way you look at it it’s a sad, potentially explosive time bomb.


Even with public assistance and the ever-increasing cost of living, a poverty-stricken person often has to make the choice between food and rent.  When push comes to shove it’s not a choice at all. While you can survive without a roof you simply cannot survive without food. Already living in dire circumstances, the poor person is often one illness or one meal away from the streets. While forced into a position where simple everyday necessities have to be dropped, the poverty-stricken human being is living on borrowed time. If their car should break down, if their roof should cave in, if their child should get sick, if they lose their job, if almost anything, they will find themselves on the streets.  At an increasing rate, they do every single day.


You would think that the poor economy would force the American system to have some kind of heart and help their own people by actually lowering their profit margins and lowering their prices to make the cost of living more affordable, but, in most cases, it just doesn’t happen. While the average American person struggles to survive grocery stores, landlords and utility companies continue to raise their prices and expose what they are truly concerned about. With the somewhat insane housing market of the past 20 years, the cost of housing has become out of reach for many human beings. At the same time wages and benefits for the average, hard working blue collar people have declined. The entire United States seems to be catering to the wealthy while every other class does nothing but suffer and continue to downgrade to nothing.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders bravely exposes the truth of what is happening in America, but he’s only one voice in a system that seems to be laughing at him. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H5OtB298fHY He’s been made out to be a radical but yet he speaks the truth. “Destroy the middle class and continue to make the wealthy wealthier,” Sanders says. “Not all of them,” Mr Sanders adds. “Some actually do care and want to help but most are contributing to a horrible, rarely spoken tragedy that no one is doing anything about.”


Health Care:

Although you don’t see it or hear about it people are dying every day on the streets of America. In many cases, a homeless person can point directly to the lack of health care coverage as their chief reason for being where they are. Doctors, dentists and psychiatrists deplete any income at rapid rates at which point one’s life can become a downward spiral to the streets. A sick person who can’t afford a doctor is often unable to work, pay their bills or maintain any resemblance of a normal existence. Once on the streets the bad health progresses with the result often being the ultimate tragedy.



Alcoholism is another issue that no one seems to understand or care about until they are faced with it. It’s everywhere. It’s on the radio, TV, Internet, every billboard, every convenience store, and every grocery store. You literally cannot drive down the street without it being waved in your face and tempting you. “It’s just another beer, it’s just another day, it’s just a 6 pack, and I deserve it.”


Test what I’m saying. While you’re reading this turn on your TV or radio and see if you can go 10 minutes without hearing or seeing an alcohol ad. See if you can walk into a convenience store or grocery store without seeing a big, bold, red beer sign. Try to drive down any major two-lane road without seeing some sort of alcohol billboard or sign. Now imagine that you have a serious problem which has destroyed your entire life and you are trying to be strong and escape it. It’s impossible. It’s everywhere.  The entire system is set up to decrease the alcoholic’s chances for recovery.

The path for the recovering alcoholic or drug addict needs to be cleared, and this area is completely up to the politicians of our country. I am not blaming the politicians or the alcohol companies, but it needs to be reevaluated just like the cigarette companies were. Put control back into the hands of the recovering alcoholic and out of the hands of big business.

Domestic Violence:

Half of homeless women report domestic violence as the number one reason for their current condition. Most are simply fleeing from the problem while many have been beaten into horrible mental and physical conditions. Their main issue is that they never get a chance to recover. Like a runaway teen a woman escaping abuse is screaming that she will no longer be a part of the dysfunction. It’s a sign of strength and mental health.  It should be applauded and rewarded, but, in most cases, they are seen as losers. Most return to the abusive husband because, although it’s false hope, there’s more hope that the husband will change than there is hope that society will care. Here again this path can be cleared.


There are people on the streets who have  incredible gifts and talents that deserve to be recognized, heard, and appreciated. There’s a place for all of us.  The streets are no place for any of us. It’s colder than you could imagine, and I’m not just referring to the weather.


Knoxville needs to take the lead and other communities will follow. We need to adopt our own ethics, morals, laws, plans, etc. and stop doing what everyone else is doing. It all needs to be put in the hands of creative, intelligent people who understand the problem because they’re close to the problem or have lived through the problem. We need to watch out for our own people and force big business to create jobs in our community instead of sucking the lifeblood out of our community. Our politicians and business leaders need to clear paths not as a handout but as a chance for the homeless to be in a position to help themselves. They could soon be high bracket, voting, taxpayers.

To close I will again say that the answers are in the old man pushing the shopping cart down Broadway, the lost runaway teen crying under the bridge, the lady at the library trying to find hope, and the angry junkie shooting kerosene into his tongue. What you are turning away from is someone who lost control of his or her own life. Ask them what can be done. They’ll tell you, and they won’t hand you a paper full of useless numbers. Don’t be scared. The answers and solutions are right in front of you.

Now you’re going to try to find your own hope and ask me if it’s possible. Can we really fix this? Thanks for the smile. I wouldn’t be writing this if it weren’t possible. Your answer is: absolutely.



Published in Knoxville Daily sun December 13, 2010

Published in East TN News October 10,2010

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