By María Marta Guzmán, WBIR

After Knoxville’s only low-barrier shelter serving people facing homelessness closed, at least 1,000 faith leaders met on Tuesday to call for leaders to take action.

It was part of Justice Knox’s annual meeting — the Nehemiah Action Assembly. The assembly was at the Knoxville Civic Auditorium where the group presented proposals for change to public leaders. Specifically, the group focused on “homelessness, educational and economic instability in the Knoxville community.”

KnoxHMIS, a system collecting data on homelessness in Knoxville, said around 1,718 people experience homelessness every day in the area as of the fourth quarter of 2023. That number is an increase of around 90 people, and another 258 people receiving social services were at risk of losing their homes.

“We are going to be persistent, we’re not going to give up, because the cries of the people can still be heard,” said Mary Groh, a leader of Justice Knox. “In the case of homelessness, we want that direction to be permanent housing.”

Tuesday marked the eighth annual Nehemiah Action Assembly, a meeting named after a Biblical example of a large assembly. Justice Knox, the nonprofit that organized the meeting, said it represents 23 churches across Knox County.

“To love your neighbor, to care for the widow and the orphan,” said Groh. “Seeking direct action to change problems in the community.”

Faith leaders said they want to work with the Knoxville-Knox County Office of Housing Stability on a plan to address homelessness, hoping to become a partner with leaders in the area. Attendees also asked both Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs and Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon to set a goal of “functional zero” — effectively eliminating homelessness in the city.

“To have the capacity and the heart to solve this problem as a community is going to take everyone, including ourselves,” said Groh.

Implementing a “functional zero” goal would require leaders to help specific groups, such as homeless veterans and people who are chronically homeless.

At the meeting, Justice Knox also asked Knox County Schools board members to follow through on a recent commitment to consistently report data on discipline and to implement evidence-based strategies meant to improve school culture and discipline.

Faith leaders said the changes would help students stay in the classroom, making sure learning is uninterrupted.

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