Knoxville conducts first homeless youth count

Knoxville conducted its first ever Point-in-Time count of homeless youth last month; the task was easier said than done.

Every year in the last week of January, Knoxville joins communities across America in conducting a Point-in-Time (PIT) count to get an accurate picture of homelessness in the community. This year, Knox County joined a growing number of American cities in trying something new.

On January 26th, the Knoxville-Knox County Homeless Coalition conducted Knox County’s first ever PIT Count of homeless youth.

PIT Counts are annual events that record how many people are experiencing homelessness in a community on a single night. The numbers get reported to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, where they go into a national database. On a local level, PIT counts help municipalities address the specific needs of their homeless population and measure if programs already in place are working.

According to Michael Dunthorn, program coordinator for the City of Knoxville’s Office on Homelessness, the desire to do a youth count came from both national and local directions.

“There’s a national effort to try and get a better idea of the youth component of homelessness, but then, locally, there’s a youth homelessness council that has formed as part of the local homeless coalition that has really geared up over the past year, and they also really wanted to do this,” Dunthorn said.

Gabe Cline, chair of the Homeless Coalition, said the youth council formed so the city could address specific needs of the youth population. According to Dunthorn and Cline, youth experiencing homelessness are often trying to finish their education and lack support systems or experience to help them navigate life.

“They don’t necessarily have the independent living skills that some older adults have had. They don’t have typically a job history or a rental history, so when they go to try to start out on their own, they don’t have anything to fall back on,” Cline said.

For the Homeless Coalition, creating something for homeless youth to fall back on was a motivation behind doing this PIT count.

“We all need that kind of support. Most of us were fortunate enough to get it from our families or elsewhere in our communities, but I think for homeless youth, they don’t have those natural support networks. Our coalition is hoping to be able kind of fill some of those gaps,” Cline said.

To get the word out that the count was happening, the Homeless Coalition posted flyers in public libraries and bus transfer stations. It contacted staff at Knox County Schools and Pellissippi State Community College. For Cline, it was a learning experience.

Often youth are not living in shelters or “literally homeless,” living on the street. Youth are typically “couch-surfing,” or moving from place to place, so they can be harder to connect with and may not self-identify as homeless.

“I think a lot of times the youth themselves don’t really identify as ‘yes i’m homeless because my parents kicked me out and I’m moving from friend to friend’,” Cline said.

On the day of the count, volunteers hit the streets looking for youth to survey. In addition to pure numbers, volunteers also tried to collect information about demographics and specific experiences of people they found. Dunthorn was helping to send out groups of volunteers, and Cline was in her office at the Volunteer Ministry Center troubleshooting issues that came up.

“Really for this year, it was almost a learning experience to figure out where we might find folks. Some places we anticipated there was nobody, and then other places we found quite a few,” Dunthorn said.

Cline hopes to do even better in future years.

“What we got back from the school system was that they had information about more youth than we counted. So I think we still have a lot of work to do to figure out how best to engage folks and let them know that there are folks out here who want to try to help them navigate this system,” Cline said.

While Dunthorn said the Office on Homelessness hopes to have their information compiled in a couple weeks, it will be longer before the data is ready for public release. Knoxville’s numbers won’t come out until the national numbers do, and it will be months before HUD releases those.

“I think the extra effort this year will teach us additional information on who’s out there and what their needs really are. Kids are out there, young people are out there. We really want to reach them and help them get on the right path before it becomes a lifelong situation,” Dunthorn said.

Cline agrees that whatever the count reveals, the ensuing effort will be all about rising to meet the needs of Knox County’s youth.

“We think we have a good idea, but you never know for sure until you ask the folks who are experiencing homelessness: ‘what is missing?’,” Cline said. “The next step is, how do you build those services, how do you come together as a community and provide services to meet those needs?”

To view this story with accompanying graphics and audio, visit The Tennessee Journalist at the link below:



Community Watchers Weigh in on Sex Offender Residency Requirements

All but a few Knox County elementary schools have registered sex offenders living within a mile. But according to a school security officer and a neighborhood watch leader, its not a problem in their communities.

If a parent found out that a registered sex offender was living 1,001 feet away from their child’s school, you might expect a reaction based out of fear. But for community watchdogs in Knoxville, fear is not often the case.

Most citizens are aware that a national sex offender registry exists. Those convicted of sexual offenses are usually required to register under the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA), which is a federal law. The Tennessee registry allows you to see a photo, an address, and information about why the person is on the registry.

Over 20 states have enacted residency restrictions for those on the registry. In Tennessee, no sex offender, regardless of whether their crime involved a minor, may live within 1,000 feet of any “public school, private or parochial school, licensed day care center, other child care facility, public park, playground, recreation center, or public athletic field available for use by the general public,” according to section 211 of Tennessee’s legislation.

Beyond that 1,000 feet, there’s wiggle room.

An investigation of the registry shows that of the 50 elementary schools in Knox County, all but seven have at least one registered offender living within a mile of school property, and all 50 have offenders within three miles. Presumably, this means convicted sex offenders living in the same neighborhoods as young children.

Jennifer Mirtes, head of Inskip Park and Pool Neighborhood Watch in North Knoxville, says her group is aware of both the offender locator and the 17 offenders living within a mile of Inskip Elementary School. The Inskip Community Association includes a watchlist with its monthly newsletter.

Mirtes said that while the close proximity concerns her as a community member, she’s never seen any problems occur in the neighborhood.

“I’ve been out trick or treating with my kids when they were little and those people kept their lights off,” she says.

Mirtes and the mission of the Inskip neighborhood watch group stress simply keeping an eye on the neighborhood so “bad elements know this is not the place to do business.” In terms of sex offenders, Mirtes’ watchful eye has never observed anything but compliance.

Tony Boles, one of two security officers at Pond Gap School in South Knoxville, says the residency requirement is fair, but “it could definitely be pushed back a few hundred feet.”

When Pond Gap has issues with people being on school property who shouldn’t be there, it’s never a sex offender issue.

“They know the laws. They’re smart people,” he said.

“Not to say there aren’t any in the area; there are. But we’ve never had an issue.”

How many registered offenders live nearby your neighborhood school? This map can show you both a one and three mile radius of any elementary school in Knox County

Knox County sophomore brings dress code issues before board of education

IMG_0312.JPGThe debate over dress code in Knox County Schools took center stage during the public forum portion of the board of education’s meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 7.

Farragut High School sophomore Hollie Sikes identified herself before the board by saying, “You may know me as the girl who started the dress code petition.”

Sikes pointed out that she had never been reprimanded for breaking Knox County’s dress code, but knew people who had been “called out and embarrassed” over what they were wearing.

“The reason I started this petition, sincerely, was because in our day and age it is nearly impossible to find girls’ shorts that come below fingertip length,” Sikes said.

This is in reference to what’s called “the fingertip rule,” which is applied to female students in Knox County. The rule states that a student’s hemline must never rise above their fingertips. Specifically, Sikes questioned the fairness of girls having to buy all new clothes for hot school days.

“When school comes around,” said Sikes, “we are forced to spend money on brand new clothes that we will never wear outside of school.”

Sikes also noted that teachers did not seem to be held to the same standards as students.

“I have seen teachers wearing tank tops calls girls and boys alike down for wearing something similar.”

According to Sikes, the idea for the petition started with a joke she made to her friends in a group chat. On August 13, when she posted her petition on, she said the hope was for maybe 500 signatures.

By September 7, the date of the meeting, her petition had 3,728 signatures.

“It was wild,” Sikes said. “It had like a thousand signatures in a day.”

Although Sikes has many supporters for her cause, there are some who disagreed with her stance on the issue. Student representative Sydney Rowell is one such case.

“I feel like our dress code is pretty lenient,” Rowell said in response. “I personally don’t see that any changes could be made to the dress code.”

Rowell expressed that more flexible regulations would make dress code unnecessarily hard to enforce for teachers and administrators.

Some of Sikes’s examples about the availability of clothes which are deemed appropriate, such as clothing store Forever 21 only offering two pairs of dress code appropriate shorts, failed to impress board member Tony Norman.

After the meeting, Norman stated, “I’m sorry, there’s the internet. You can order anything. That’s not a valid argument.”

Norman also said he would not be in favor of changing the dress code in any way.

For Sikes and her thousands of supporters online, the future of the dress code still remains unclear.

This article was published by The Tennessee Journalist on September 8th, 2016. The post on that website can be found here:

Knox County sophomore brings dress code issues before board of education