Desperate people huddled together inside makeshift tents. Family members making room inside their small vehicle for their pet as they prepare for another night without a home. A homeless veteran pawns his battle medallions for enough money to purchase food. A lone woman struggling for months to pay the rent and utilities is handed her pink slip, and she joins the disenfranchised as her homeless journey begins.
During one of the coldest, snowiest days of 2014, Claiborne County conducted its annual Point in Time (PIT) count. What the volunteers discovered made some weep as they wondered how such a rural area, with so many close-knit communities, could produce so many homeless and precariously housed individuals suffering in silence.
The day began at 6:30 a.m. for PIT volunteer Debbie Keaton as she made her way to a section of Norris Lake, not far from her home.
“I really didn’t expect to find anyone there, it being so cold and snowy. It shocked me to find a middle-aged man and woman with just a tent set up and a tiny camper, no bigger than my car, living there,” said Keaton.
What made the situation that much worse, Keaton said, was the fact that there were no utilities nearby, meaning no heat for the couple.
Keaton said the two had lost their home while the man waited for his disability claim to be approved. With no vehicle, the woman had no way to find a job, she said.
“This just makes it clear to me how much this county needs a homeless shelter,” said Keaton.
In another part of the county, 10 individuals are trying to survive inside a tiny, dilapidated mobile home with no underpinning and much of the flooring rotted.
Robin Mason, director of Claiborne Economic & Community Development, is in the process of inputting the statistics from the surveys taken during that one day in time.
Mason says because of the inclement weather, the statistics are unofficial.
It is unclear whether Claiborne will join other counties in a recount.
The volunteers counted a total 529 individuals, 252 of which were deemed precariously housed, which means they are living with friends or family but cannot financially contribute to the rent or utilities.
“This may be due to unemployment, sickness, disability or divorce. They are just not able to afford living on their own,” said Mason.
Of the remainder, 196 individuals were considered unsheltered while 81 were counted as sheltered individuals.
“The unsheltered are those living in abandoned buildings, at the campgrounds in tents, in cars or on the streets - those living in places not meant for human habitation or living in homes without access to drinking water and the ability to cook hot meals,” she said.
Some of those counted as sheltered were either residing at CEASE Domestic Violence Shelter or Mending Hearts. Others were being kept at a hotel or motel with funds from a charitable organization or church, she added.
Mason says the surveys highlighted several concerns for the county’s homeless population. Many are mentally and physically disabled, while others battle drug and alcohol addiction or have fled domestic violence situations. Veterans were also counted among the homeless or precariously housed.
“The survey helps us direct each one to the appropriate agencies that can help them with their individual needs,” she said.
Once the surveys are sent in, the federal government will dole out funding depending on the types of needs shown within each county. In the past, Claiborne has received some $34,000 to help the homeless with rent and utilities.
The Tennessee Valley Coalition for the Homeless, who spearheads the annual PIT count in this region, provides care to 12 counties including Claiborne, Campbell, Cocke, Grainger, Hamblen and Union.
Jan Runions may be reached at 423-626-3222