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Kingsport forming coalition to address homelessness

Matthew Lane • Sep 15, 2019 at 12:30 PM

KINGSPORT — Like many other communities across the country, the Model City is trying to figure out the best way to manage its homeless population.

It’s not an easy problem to solve and one that’s multifaceted, city leaders admit. The homeless aren’t exactly a homogeneous group of people. Some folks are simply down on their luck. Others are addicted to drugs or alcohol, while a small number have waved the white flag, as Kingsport Police Chief David Quillin recently said.

These are people who have given up on society, are choosing to be homeless and aren’t interested in seeking help.

But regardless of why people become homeless, city officials have quickly come to the realization that something needs to be done to better address the situation.

THE HOMELESS SITUATION

Cities both large and small have issues with the homeless, just on different scales. It’s not a problem that’s unique to Kingsport, Quillin told the BMA  earlier this month, noting that in the ’80s, many of these people were essentially “street drunks” who had a place to stay. Others were truly homeless, and for the most part these folks were harmless, Quillin said.

“Now, there’s more chronic homeless, more addiction issues, mental health issues and there’s a lot more people who choose to live this lifestyle,” Quillin said.

According to the most recent “point-in-time” survey of the homeless population in Kingsport, conducted during a 24-hour period in January, the Model City has 134 homeless people. This number includes 50 who were in emergency shelters, 46 unsheltered and 38 living in transitional housing.

For those homeless people who answered the question, 28 were either born locally or in Kingsport, nine had moved to our city and 27 were here due to a relationship.

An early point made by Qullin when he spoke to the BMA last month was that being homeless is not a crime.

“This is a communitywide issue that very often gets punted to the police and creates the perception that we own the problem,” Quillin said.

When it comes to the homeless, the Kingsport Police Department will respond to complaints of trespassing, vandalism, drug use, and aggressive panhandling.

But a homeless person walking the sidewalks or sitting in a park? That’s not against the law.

“We cannot police our way out of this issue. It can’t be done and no city can do that,” Quillin said. “There has to be a coordinated, comprehensive and collaborative effort where resources are made available for folks who need and want help.”

And steps have already been taken by the KPD, including having a designated officer respond to homeless-related calls, having more foot and bike patrols in the downtown area, having overnight units conduct extra patrols around the library and Glen Bruce Park and exploring possible changes to city ordinances. In the long term, Quillin said, the department is looking to hire a social worker who could work directly with the homeless and install “blue light” phones in strategic locations across town.

THE PUBLIC SPEAKS OUT

During last month’s BMA meeting, several members of the community spoke about their concerns and recent interactions with the homeless who frequent the downtown area. Many people, both elected and unelected, admit the homeless are clearly more visible downtown, with some being more aggressive when interacting with the general population.

Kim Jones, who lives in the newly opened Town Park Lofts, said she’s seen upward of 30 people, some with shopping carts, out in the street near the apartments after midnight. Jones said she believes the city is making it too comfortable for the homeless.

“There’s a reason why they’re nesting here, but I don’t know why and we’ve got to figure it out quickly,” Jones said.

Becky Rockwell hails from Kingsport and said she recently came across four homeless people sitting around a table near her downtown office with drug paraphernalia in plain view. She said she’s frightened for her family and friends.

“We should never have let it get to this point so quickly,” Rockwell said. “How it escalated so quickly? I have no idea.”

Robin Cleary, the executive director of Keep Kingsport Beautiful, said she’s seen things escalate very quickly when it comes to the homeless situation, and not just in the downtown area. She lives in Greenacres and said she recently discovered a homeless person was camping in a small wooded area behind her home.

WHAT’S BEING DONE NOW?

During the BMA meeting, City Manager Chris McCartt offered a recommendation to form a coalition to help address homelessness. The idea would be for the city’s office of community development to work with the United Way of Greater Kingsport to make this a reality.

The United Way has been working on the homeless issue for years, both internally and with outside organizations. Last year, the United Way provided $200,000 to member agencies that provide housing-related functions for the poor and homeless.

“We’ve not had a holistic strategy to end homelessness,” said Becca Sutphen, community impact director for the UWGK. “We need to come together to find out what the next steps are.”

McCartt said he envisions the two groups developing and conducting a survey of existing services for the homeless, bring groups that serve the homeless together and then facilitate a path forward. In addition to forming a coalition, other immediate actions on deck for Kingsport will be the hiring of a social worker to work with the KPD and reviewing the city’s existing code of ordinances to give the city more options in dealing with the homeless.

“No way are we forming this (coalition) to take the place of any existing organization,” McCartt stressed. “It’s to come alongside and understand the potential opportunities for them, how we can help open doors or provide them with additional information to provide the services they have.”

One main weakness that’s been identified in the past is, while Kingsport has a good amount of disparate organizations helping the homeless, the city doesn’t have a coordinated entry point where folks assess and prioritize a person’s problem and then refer them to the appropriate service.

“We’ve tried numerous times to bring groups to the table. It’s been a struggle and there’s challenges associated with it. Now, we have to be ready and willing and take ownership (of the issue),” McCartt said. “We’re adopting the attitude that better together is the right approach.”

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