The Path Home

by Michael Sears

Many of us can attest that finding housing in today’s market can be not only stressful but also difficult. The additional challenges of being low-income and homeless complicates the search even more. Born out of a community needs assessment, the United Way of Greater Knoxville launched the House Knox initiative in June 2020 to help clients experiencing homelessness navigate their way to permanent housing.

Last summer I joined with the United Way as a CAC AmeriCorps VISTA member, and the initiative has already made significant progress in the community – promoting greater collaboration and communication with community partners, engaging 17 clients, successfully housing 9 clients, and generating an average of 11 affordable properties per agency meeting. Moving forward, we hope to further promote systemic change in Knoxville while also continuing to navigate individuals and families to affordable housing.

Although the lack of affordable housing is an obstacle, it is not the only factor that hinders individuals and families from entering housing. Screening criteria such as criminal background, utility and rental arrears, rental history, job history, etc. end up screening out potential tenants from the onset. In addition, though clients are often supported by an agency, the support may not be adequate to sustainably secure housing. A reason for this is unintentionally segregated resources. For example, a client may have a Section 8 housing voucher but without additional support such as deposit, utility, and/or application fee assistance, securing housing is not viable.

The response of House Knox to address these issues has been multi-fold and is ever changing to fit the need. This includes working to 1) promote communication, collaboration, and the connection of existing resources among partner agencies; 2) develop landlord relationships and broker innovative partnerships; 3) identify affordable housing; and 4) help alleviate screening criteria and financial barriers through our landlord relationships and risk mitigation fund.

As a brief overview, the continuum of care for homelessness in Knoxville utilizes a coordinated entry system called CHAMP, which stands for Coordinated Housing Assessment and Match Plan. A coordinated entry system is essentially a database meant to capture the contact information for every person experiencing homelessness and can then be used to assess risk, needs, and agency support as well as tracking the inflow and outflow of homelessness in that community. As part of the CHAMP intake, each client fills out a risk assessment questionnaire that determines their vulnerability and assigns a score from 1 to 15 (or 1 to 16 for families). A lower number means less vulnerability (relatively more stable circumstances), and conversely a higher number means higher vulnerability (will need more support). Those that are deemed lower risk are placed on a Rapid Rehousing (RRH) list while those that are higher risk are placed on a Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) list. The Knoxville community already has regular meetings and a robust process for housing those on the PSH list. However, there is not yet a delineated process for housing clients on the RRH list.

In response, House Knox, in partnership with CHAMP, prompted a regular RRH meeting where partner agencies can better communicate and collaborate with each other about clients, resources, gaps, and needs. The RRH meetings started in September 2020, and they have already proven to be greatly beneficial in identifying systemic problems, connecting clients to identified affordable housing, and better bridging clients to the section 8 voucher process. Additionally, there already seems to be improved collaboration and city involvement as we try to develop an efficient process for housing those on the RRH list.

Although the work has been challenging and complex, the identification of problems means there is potential for developing high-impact solutions for the community. We have already begun and will continue to engage with partner agencies at the RRH meetings as well as developing innovative relationships with landlords, property complexes, realtor associations, and community stakeholders. Moving forward, we are also working to create an expansive database of multi-family housing in Knoxville, which will allow us to identify naturally occurring affordable housing, and to develop a deposit fund for clients who may not qualify for the funding provided by partner agencies. Homelessness is a complex issue, but, by focusing on systemic change, House Knox hopes to move the needle toward ending homelessness here in Knoxville.

For more information about House Knox and what we are doing, please reach out to me, Michael Sears, directly at or call the general United Way phone number 865-523-9131 and ask for the House Knox team.

This blog post is a collection of personal reflections and expressions. All opinions represented are those of the author and do not represent the official opinion or views of the Knoxville – Knox County Community Action Committee, CAC AmeriCorps or any other party referenced.