​Homelessness in Sewanee Exists

by Kevin Cummings, Messenger Staff Writer

Homelessness in Sewanee is difficult to find and largely not viewed as a problem, but a recent research project indicates there are people in the community who do not have a place to call home.
Arthur Jones, a seminarian at the School of Theology, started researching homelessness in Sewanee and Franklin County last fall as part of his Gessell Fellowship for Social Ethics, which provides funding for projects in social theory and social ethics. During the research, Jones said he met three people in the Sewanee area who were homeless.
“In my conversations with them, I was struck by the fact that on top of dealing with the harsh daily realities of being homeless, most of them also expressed feelings of unwelcomeness,” Jones said. “The visible affluence of some students, faculty members, members of the Sewanee community and their families in terms of how they dress or what they drive or how they carry themselves combine to make homeless members of Sewanee’s community feel that much more unwanted, unneeded, unloved and invisible.”
Jones said one of the people became homeless after an extended illness, another lost a job, and in a third situation, a woman moved into area shelters following a divorce. He said a major misconception is that homelessness is the direct result of bad choices, but there are many reasons someone can be homeless.
“If it wasn’t for God’s grace, it could be any one of us,” he said. “We’ve all been sick; we’ve all been in need; we’ve all needed help, maybe not financially, but no man is an island and we all need each other.”
Sewanee is a relatively affluent community, but extreme poverty is a part of life here as well. According to 2015 U.S. Census Bureau estimates, the median household income in Sewanee is $73,750, above the national household median of $53,889. Those same statistics show 4.1 percent of Sewanee families live below the poverty line.
Laura Willis, former director of the South Cumberland Community Fund, an area philanthropic organization, and past director of the Community Action Committee (CAC), an outreach of Otey Parish, said homelessness in Sewanee is usually temporary, but added there is an absence of affordable housing.
“From my experience, when someone becomes homeless in Sewanee, they move from friend to friend with the occasional night in the car,” Willis said. “So, while we don’t have homeless folks living under bridges or in the park, we have people who need short-term options for when a relationship ends or they get into trouble and family won’t take them in.”
According to the Tennessee State Plan to End Homelessness, 9,123 people were identified as homeless in Tennessee in 2015. In that plan, Franklin, Grundy and Marion counties are designated as part of the Chattanooga/Southeast Tennessee region, which includes 11 counties and the mid-size cities of Chattanooga and Cleveland. In that region, 636 people were identified as homeless in 2015.
In the 19-county Upper Cumberland region, which includes neighboring counties Moore, Lincoln and Coffee, 362 people were identified as homeless in 2015.
Betty Carpenter, director of CAC, said about every two months someone who is homeless seeks help there, usually coming from outside Sewanee. But Carpenter noted that people who live in Sewanee have been on the verge of being homeless and the CAC was able to help with rent or a mortgage payment. The organization can also assist with food, clothing, temporary hotel stays, dental and medical care, and a number of other needs.
“Whatever people need, I hope that they know they can come here and if we can’t help them, we can steer them to an agency that can,” Carpenter said. “Sometimes I feel like we’re the first line of defense.”
Sewanee Police Chief Marie Eldridge said officers do encounter people who are homeless when they pass through via Highway 41A, or after they have been transported to the hospital from other areas.
“We typically try to connect them to a church for assistance,” Eldridge noted.
Jones presented his research findings on April 26 at the School of Theology, and noted that churches are the primary resource in combating homelessness, but stressed that increased government awareness and assistance is needed.
“Churches are ready, willing and able to help the homeless. Churches are willing to partner with governmental agencies on the local level, state level and so on to help our brothers and sisters. And in places where that’s going on, great things are happening,” he said.
To donate to the Community Action Committee or for assistance with a need, call (931) 598-5927 or visit between 9 and 11 a.m., Monday through Friday, at 216 University Avenue behind Otey Parish.