Many know that a drive through downtown Knoxville will provide multiple images of homelessness—numbers of individuals lining up at soup kitchens, sleeping under bridges and crowding public shelters.
However, very few people realize that the issue is just as prominent here in Blount County.
On Jan. 26, Maryville College students joined the United Way, the Blount County police force and several nonprofit organizations in an effort to find out exactly how many citizens in Blount County are without homes.
The Point in Time Homeless Count Project sought to record the number of homeless individuals seeking shelter in laundry mats or under highway ramps. The program also conducted a phone-a-thon to collect data on the homeless count.
The official count was 372.
As MC junior Lane Dodson explained, it is difficult to recognize how big of an issue homelessness is in Blount County, as a large percentage of the homeless population does not live on the streets, as one might expect.
Of those counted, some resided in laundry mats or the airport, while over 200 took refuge with families or friends.
“I really don’t think it is an issue that is in the front of our minds at times,” Dodson said. “It’s hard to notice such an issue when it’s not right in front of your face. After learning about the situation, it’s a bit of a shock to realize just how much we all miss right in front of us on an everyday basis.”
In addition to public space, there are a great number of people living in shelters, most of which are operated and maintained by volunteers, many of whom are students.
In an effort to assist in the event, MC junior Kayla Swafford posted flyers for the homeless count and volunteered with United Way.
“I think that the most important thing we could do would be to become aware and get involved,” Swafford said. “There are so many organizations in this area who need volunteers; even a few hours a week can make a huge difference.”
Preston Fields, MC director of volunteer services and Bonner scholars coordinator, was responsible for orchestrating most of the student involvement in the count.
“You can get involved with one of the organizations or lobby to try and change policy, on either the most local level or even a national level,” Fields said. “Every civil rights movement has been led by college students, and homelessness and hunger is a civil rights issue.”
Data collected from the count will be sent to government organizations in order to request more funding for local homelessness initiatives.
The event has also garnered a significant amount of media attention, which Dodson hopes will raise awareness and open people’s eyes to homeless individuals.
“A good majority of the time, a homeless person is almost invisible to society,” Dodson said. “You can’t even tell the difference. They’re just like me or you in a lot of ways.”