Downtown Focus plan aims to reduce begging and car noise in Knoxville

When COVID-19 arrived in Knoxville, many people spent less time downtown. Nonetheless, the City of Knoxville has noticed an anecdotal increase in begging, vandalism and other activities that leaders believe can paint a negative picture of the city’s commercial and cultural center.

The city wants to curb these activities with a new initiative called Downtown Focus.

The city has installed signs to discourage beggars and remove graffiti. He also plans to pilot a technology that detects excessive noise from cars.

City of Knoxville spokesperson Eric Vreeland, Downtown Coordinator Rick Emmett and Director of Utilities Chad Weth recently met downtown with Knox News to discuss the city’s new initiative.

Weth said funding for the initiative’s public works will be met from its general operating budget.

Emmett said the City Improvement Fund, endowed with around $ 370,000, can also be used for these efforts.

“The biggest investment is in the urban workforce,” Vreeland said in an email. “Think rather of a collaboration of concerted efforts and planning between several departments of the city. “

How has COVID-19 affected begging?

As the pandemic brought new challenges in people’s lives, Emmett said, new beggars have arrived downtown.

“And because they didn’t have that many customers, they got more aggressive,” he said. “And I think that’s a lot. And now that COVID has abated, we also have regulars who have returned. “

The city already has codes to discourage begging, including a law that prohibits any “aggressive” solicitation in a public space. General solicitation is prohibited after sunset and before sunrise, as well as within 20 feet of a crosswalk or commercial entrance during opening hours.

The city does not intend to crack down on “passive” begging, but people should not contribute to beggars in a “pressure situation” where they are followed or treated aggressively, Vreeland said.

The city has installed new signs that read “Please say no to begging”, adding that there is “a better way to help”.

The signs can be found in the market square, near information kiosks, parking garages and other high traffic areas for visitors to the city center. The signs include a QR code that connects to a United Way donation link.

New signs are being placed in the Marketplace and other high traffic areas for visitors to downtown Knoxville to discourage giving directly to beggars.  The Knoxville Independent Restaurant Coalition is discussing homelessness in urban areas, and its chef, Brian Strutz, said he agreed with this message because it is the same message he has heard from organizations who work with homeless people in Knoxville.

These donations will go to community partners who work with homeless people, the city said, including Family Promise of Knoxville, the McNabb Center and the Volunteer Ministry Center.

A report from the University of Tennessee, consisting of data from several Knox County partners and programs providing services to the homeless, shows that most categories of homelessness either declined or remained stable from 2018 to 2020.

However, the number of homeless people increased from 1,899 to 1,943 during this period, and the number of regularly homeless people increased from 627 to 760.

The US Department of Housing and Urban Development generally defines chronic homelessness as people who have lived in a shelter or place “not intended for human habitation” for at least one year and who suffer from a crippling illness. Conditions can include substance use disorder, “serious mental illness” or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Bruce Spangler, CEO of the Volunteer Ministry Center, told Knox News that chronically homeless people are generally more visible. Downtown beggars often fall into this category, he said, as many struggle with mental health issues.

Shaping the beggar “culture”

Emmett said the city cared “a lot” about reducing begging “a lot”, adding that not all beggars are homeless.

Downtown business owners are also concerned about reducing begging, including Brian Strutz, whose company A Dopo Sourdough Pizza is a few blocks from the Knox Area Rescue Mission, which serves many homeless people in Knoxville.

Brian Strutz, owner of A Dopo and leader of the Knoxville Independent Restaurant Coalition, said member restaurants were discussing homelessness in urban areas and its impact on businesses.  Strutz has offered de-escalation training to their employees and is happy to see the city trying to "change message" on begging in Knoxville.

Strutz is also the leader of the Knoxville Independent Restaurant Coalition, which brought together local restaurant owners during the COVID-19 pandemic to address industry issues, including homelessness in urban areas.

“I can’t sit here and say that our business is in trouble because of this, but there are some situations that make it very difficult,” Strutz said.

Strutz said he offered de-escalation training to help staff members better deal with aggressive behavior from beggars or anyone else who comes to the restaurant.

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“We heard from the city that they have a position on begging, and the position is not to allow it and not to do it and not to contribute to it,” he said.

Spangler said “we strongly advise against” giving to beggars. Giving to organizations, on the contrary, allows people who work with homeless populations to assess the needs of people seeking services, he said.

“And all of this should not be punitive,” he said. “It’s not about being dismissive. Giving money may seem like a short term solution. But we are committed to the long term.”

“Despite the urban myth, you can’t deprive yourself of the experience of homelessness,” Spangler said. “It’s just not possible.… It’s no wonder that there are beggars in the city center because that’s where there are people. People respond with sympathy, but this does not change the experience of roaming. ”

Both Strutz and Spangler said they thought the message included on the signs was appropriate, but understood that not everyone would agree.

The new downtown signs include a QR code that allows people to contribute to local organizations working with homeless people in Knoxville.  The signs encourage people to "Please say no to begging," pointing out that there are other ways to help.

“What I understand is that the city is trying to shape a culture around it,” Strutz said. “They feel like they can change the message. And I think that can be powerful.”

Hoping for more respect “if things look good”

Weth, the city’s director of utilities, said the initiative was intended to “add to the value of a visit to downtown Knoxville.”

Emmett said takeout containers from restaurants contributed to the overflow of trash cans during the pandemic. The downtown trash cans have been replaced with receptacles that Weth finds more beautiful and more difficult to search.

Utility workers are also responsible for covering graffiti and removing stickers from light poles.

The initiative has no end date, Weth said.

“These are the kinds of little things that you might not notice every day that we have tried to address more aggressively,” Weth said. “No one wants to see graffiti that isn’t supposed to be there.”

Downtown trash cans have been replaced with these receptacles as part of the city's new Downtown Focus initiative.  Downtown Coordinator Rick Emmett said take-out containers given to restaurant patrons have contributed to an increase in downtown waste during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The flowers were placed in hanging baskets in the market square rather than sidewalk planters.

“There are a lot of low-key, inexpensive little vandalism going on in the downtown area,” Vreeland said. “Wickedness, whatever you want to call it – someone walks past a planter and pulls up plants.”

The initiative also includes “cutting back vegetation for increased visibility and walking ability,” according to an email from Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon announcing the plans.

The city has added more public service workers downtown to tackle vandalism and trash, according to the email, and the Knoxville Police Department has placed more cadets in downtown areas with “levels higher drug activity “.

Downtown Knoxville is the victim of vandalism of planters and other city vegetation.  As part of the city's new Downtown Focus initiative, these hanging flower baskets have been placed out of reach in the market square.

“Cadets are not sworn officers,” Vreeland said. “They are starting a career to be a police officer, but they are eyeballs in uniform.”

Loud car noise in a downtown “canyon”

Downtown residents will tell you that car noise has been a problem for a long time.

“It’s rife everywhere,” Emmett said. “They’re sort of in a canyon here where it kind of resonates.”

Drivers were able to run their engines and stream music downtown with less hindsight during the pandemic due to fewer people living downtown.

Rick Emmett, Downtown Knoxville Coordinator, regularly speaks to downtown residents frustrated by excessive car noise in the heart of the city.  During a downtown tour showcasing the city's new Downtown Focus initiative, city officials shared plans to try out new technology that monitors vehicle decibel levels.

The city has requested a 40-day demonstration of ‘noise-canceling camera’ technology that has been used in the UK. The devices are similar to red light cameras, according to an email from the city.

When noise exceeds a certain decibel level, the monitor creates audio and video recordings. The city plans to place signs throughout the city to inform drivers of the technology, the email said, “with the additional intention of deterring noisy vehicles.”

Demo testing dates have not been determined.

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