The Atlantic | June 21, 2009 | By Christina Davidson
On a slightly-more-than-one-lane road, off a winding country drive, off TN-63 deep in the forested beauty of the eastern Cumberland Plateau, a new homeless shelter opened its doors five months ago. Partially shielded from the road by a dense thicket of trees, the former abandoned building now housing the Scott County Homeless Shelter would look still abandoned if it weren't for the cars parked outside.
Only after entering the door marked "office" do I realize I've just walked into someone's living space without invitation. Faux pas already committed, I sheepishly sit down at a kitchen table to wait for its resident to finish a phone call.
A big screen TV dominates one end of the windowless room, broadcasting closed-circuit video monitoring six different areas of the shelter. Cases of soda, bottled water, and iced tea are stacked against one cement block wall. In a small bedroom off to one side, crumpled and twisted blue sheets typical of one who does not enjoy the luxury of a good night's sleep lie on top of a mattress on the floor.
Jerry Voiles emerges from his office with a big smile on his face. He's gregarious and energetic with a bushy mustache and an easy southern twang. I like him immediately.
Voiles spent the better part of his professional life earning six figures in the telecommunications industry. Then in the early 1990s he started reading the Bible. The deeper he got into the Good Book, the more an unsettling realization began to gnaw at him. "I had my priorities totally out of whack," he admits.
Within a few years, his complete spiritual evolution launched him down the path of serving others before himself. Now well into his 50s, Jerry only earns a $15,000 annual salary in his position as executive director of the new homeless shelter, though every word he speaks evinces the non-monetary riches his work endows.
If he sees someone in need, Gerry does what he can to help. The plight of others makes the minor discomforts of his own life irrelevant, and the human connections he establishes nurture his soul. "I'm concerned about other people," he says. "I'm worried they won't have enough food to feed their families. I have to do what I can to help."
Homelessness is not an entirely new phenomenon in the rural wilderness of the upper Cumberland Plateau, but with local unemployment rates jumping from 7.5% in 2007 to 18.3% today, increasing numbers of Scott County's 22,000 residents have found themselves unable to manage ordinary household expenses. There are no hard statistics documenting the extent of homelessness in the county, but increasing appeals to the area's social service organizations represent a growing crisis of significant proportions. Read more about Helping the Rural Homeless in Tennessee