In the wake of November 2016 crippling fires in Gatlinburg, TN, the Tennessee Valley Coalition to End Homelessness (TVCH), an NLIHC member, has been organizing local efforts to support and house hundreds of people affected by the fires. As they work to meet residents’ immediate needs, TVCH is also working with local governments to provide additional affordable housing for the region’s most vulnerable people, many of whom lost their homes, jobs, and possessions.
The fires, which burned 17,000 acres over seven days, left 2,000 households without adequate housing, exacerbating the area’s existing affordable housing shortage. In Sevier County, home to Gatlinburg, 43% of renters were cost-burdened prior to the fires. The area’s tourism industry draws many low-wage workers to Gatlinburg, while short-term vacation rentals drive up housing costs, leaving renters, particularly extremely low income (ELI) renters, with few affordable housing options. The shortage persists throughout the twelve-county area TVCH serves. TVCH works with homeless service providers across eastern Tennessee, empowering the work of individual organizations and uniting them around regional and statewide advocacy. TVCH provides services, education and leadership to develop lasting solutions to homelessness through affordable housing, transportation, case management, and referrals. TVCH also serves as the lead agency for the HUD-designated Continuum of Care for housing services and for the Homeless Management Information System.
In addition to destroying more than 2,000 homes, the November fires destroyed a number of businesses in Gatlinburg, leaving many in the community without jobs. Beyond damage to existing subsidized homes, the fire also destroyed many naturally-occurring affordable homes, including long-term-stay motels that had housed ELI renters. Without available units or the funds to afford them, the fires left many ELI renters homeless and without clothing, food, furniture, and other necessities.
TVCH expanded their operations to meet the increased need following the crisis. TVCH, which served nearly 1,000 people across 12 East Tennessee counties before the fires, has partnered with local and state level organizations to streamline efforts to assist fire survivors. They have contacted hundreds of families in need, assisted with clothing and furniture drives, and helped to find permanent housing for the homeless. TVCH also has coordinated volunteer efforts and case management services, drawing on the outpouring of community support. TVCH is also working with the Sevier County government and other local communities to develop permanent affordable housing throughout the region. TVCH is participating in a special housing committee formed in response to the crisis to address the short- and long-term housing needs of the community through the rehabilitation of abandoned motels and the construction of new affordable housing. The committee is exploring federal, state and local sources of funding.
“Sometimes natural disasters bring us to our knees, but we must participate in the work of putting our communities back together,” said TVCH CEO Melanie Cordell. “It is devastating to see the thousands of homes destroyed and families displaced by the fires. But we are honored to be with our neighbors in helping the community to rebuild.”
For more information, contact Melanie Cordell at mcordell@TVCHomeless.org or 877.488.8234 x230.