Challenges to helping the homeless in Oak Ridge

·3 min read
Andy O'Quinn, executive director of Trinity Outreach Center for Hope holds a box of scarves for homeless people. To his left in the TORCH supply room are other items including soap, shampoo and non-perishable food which TORCH has available for its clients.
Andy O'Quinn, executive director of Trinity Outreach Center for Hope holds a box of scarves for homeless people. To his left in the TORCH supply room are other items including soap, shampoo and non-perishable food which TORCH has available for its clients.

There are challenges in helping the homeless in the Oak Ridge area, but also causes for hope.

That was the message Andy O'Quinn, executive director of Tennessee Out-Reach Center for Homeless (TORCH), told The Oak Ridger in a recent interview. His organization works with homeless people in Anderson and Roane counties.

"A lot of folks here don't want people to know they're homeless," he said, with some people not even wanting to tell their families or reach out for help in other ways because of feeling ashamed.

He said more homeless people live in vehicles than camp outside, especially in Oak Ridge.

"They don't have that typical 'television homeless' look," he said. Still, O'Quinn said, they need housing, and some factors have made that a challenge.

O'Quinn said there is a shortage of housing, and the price of rent is rising, as is the price of offering services for the homeless. He said there is a backlog of people needing services.

He also said local landlords in Anderson County are being replaced with "larger corporate entities." He described these corporate entities as more difficult to work than local landlords in finding housing for the homeless.

"What happens is you take that connection to the local community out. You lose those connections to be able to house people," O'Quinn said.

He said the corporate entities are interested in getting the maximum amount of money for the property and are more "rigid" on credit checks and proving that the renter's income is three times the rent amount.

"Those are really, really difficult benchmarks to hit," O'Quinn said.

Others landlords are now selling their properties to individuals rather than renting them, which he said also raises prices.

In spite of the challenges, he said, "We seem to keep finding ways to make things happen for people."

He said TORCH still, on average, houses six to seven families per month "even with everything that's going on."

The Oak Ridge area, he said, has advantages. He said the area has various groups, such as TORCH, Aid to Distressed Families of Appalachian Counties (ADFAC), the city government, and United Way, that can work together on solving issues for homeless people.

"It makes things about a million times easier when everybody works together," he said.

He said TORCH's actions fit into three main categories.

First is street outreach, which includes looking for people who might be homeless, in cars or outside, and taking calls from the police and community members. Then the organization looks at their barriers to housing. He said the Oak Ridge Police Department usually refers homeless people rather than arresting them. TORCH keeps various supplies on hand such as some non-perishable food and scarves for warmth. He said these are to "help them stay as comfortable as possible for the time being."

Second is "rapid rehousing." This process involves moving people who are homeless to housing and helping to cover rent costs. This step involves helping with rent up to nine months, as well as moving costs.

Third is shelter. The group currently oversees the Agape House, which is a temporary shelter in Oak Ridge. O'Quinn explained that at present the organization focuses its shelter efforts on children and people with referrals from doctors.

"We're small enough that we can make sure no children sleep outside," he said.

If you want to learn more or donate, go to www.oakridgetorch.org. He said the best way to ask for services is to call (865) 318-4788.

This article originally appeared on Oakridger: Challenges to helping the homeless in Oak Ridge