Many local and national organizations agree that there are a number of potential solutions, with some being easier to implement than others. Below are some solutions mentioned by local leaders.
Own the problem
Some community leaders argue that the first step is accepting there is a homeless problem in Kingsport. But once the problem is recognized, who’s responsible for solving it? Michael Gillis, executive director of Hunger First, believes city officials could be doing more.
“This is our city,” Gillis said, “and my thing is getting everybody together on board with helping those in need become human again. We need to establish the humanitarian part of it here in this city, and I just don’t feel the city officials have that in mind. … If it was (on their minds), we would already have a permanent solution. We would’ve had one a long time ago.”
Will Shewey, pastor of Shades of Grace United Methodist Church, said he’d like to see the city support church and nonprofit efforts to solve the problem. But rather than support, Shewey said that in the past he’s sensed from city leadership “an underlying element from the day we began that really doesn’t want our presence.”
When Shades of Grace opened, Shewey said he and other church leaders were made to attend meetings with city leaders, who questioned “every little thing we were doing.” He said the meetings came to an end a couple of years ago and nothing else has been said by city officials.
Shewey said he doesn’t think a governmental solution is needed, but he would like to have more support from local government.
“I would like to have cooperation with the government officials in helping us to do this, not to put it all upon them, but at least to acknowledge that there is a problem and come alongside of us somehow to encourage us. There is a problem, and we all need to work on this.”
So how does government help fight homelessness? Could Kingsport, for example, fund a homeless shelter? It could, City Manager Jeff Fleming said, but that’s a topic that’s never been discussed by the Board of Mayor and Aldermen.
“We have many initiatives in Kingsport, but are they coordinated for maximum impact? There are people on the front line that are triaging the urgent and immediate needs, but how do we develop a full continuum of care that breaks that cycle?” Fleming said. “How do we get jobs and skills for people who’ve had strikes against them, to give them hope so they don’t turn back to drugs to numb the pain? I don’t have answers.”
One possibility is to have an overarching organization to oversee and coordinate the many, disparate services and organizations currently working to address the homeless situation in town. The United Way of Greater Kingsport is working to bring forward a community conversation about how to reach that goal.
“We all need to stay in our lane, but push in the same direction for the betterment of everybody,” Fleming said.
Create a no-questions-asked homeless shelter
Gillis has long been a supporter of a permanent shelter for Kingsport’s homeless population. If enough funds were available, he believes the facility should include no less than 100 beds, bathrooms, showers, a washer and dryer and a soup kitchen.
Above all, Gillis said it should be all-inclusive and operate on a no-questions-asked basis, which he believes would establish respect and trust between shelter occupants and staff.
“It’s not going to do anything but help the businesses, help the police force, help the residents of this city,” Gillis said. “It’s a no-brainer. It’s a win-win situation.”
Provide more job training and better wages
Morris Baker, president and CEO of Goodwill Industries of Tenneva, believes providing more employment training and increasing wages would be a step in the right direction.
For example, Baker said one of Goodwill’s goals is to ensure supervisor-level employees have a high school education or the equivalent. To do this, the organization is giving these employees six months, including release time from work, to earn their GED.
Baker plans to implement more employee training programs and has already raised the pay for some employees, including truck drivers and managers. He’s also considering a “role model employee” program, which would honor employees who come to work and perform their jobs well.
“At Goodwill, we’re touting, ‘We believe in the power of work,’ ” Baker said. “We believe work is an inherent cornerstone to somebody’s life. If you work, you’re going to be a better citizen. Chances are, you’re going to vote. You’re going to be involved in civic organizations. You’re going to be a more productive citizen.”
Assist with security deposits
Sometimes people aren’t able to secure housing because they can’t afford security deposits and start-up costs for water and electricity. Michele Wilder, homeless education program coordinator for Kingsport City Schools, said many of the families she works with experience this problem, though she isn’t able to provide aid due to her program’s funding guidelines.
“There are very limited resources out there that can help or will help families with that,” Wilder said. “It could be due to guideline restrictions they’re under, but I see that is a huge gap in our community.”
Gillis agreed. “A homeless person may have a job, may have two jobs, may have three jobs, but if they don’t have first and last month’s rent, the deposits that are needed for the electricity and all that, it does them no good to have all those jobs.”
Better coordination among nonprofits
Some local leaders, including Baker, believe that nonprofit organizations could work better together rather than duplicate services.
“How many of them (the nonprofits) are territorial?” Baker said. “I think nonprofits do a good job in our region. … They satisfy needs, but they’re struggling, as well.”
Shewey said many churches have already put cooperation into practice by supporting Shades of Grace’s efforts to help the homeless.
“We’re not doing anything heroic; we’re not doing anything unusual,” Shewey said. “We’re doing what churches are called to do, and we’re doing it with the partnership of every denomination in Kingsport, and I think that needs to be spoken loud and clear.”
Staff writer Matthew Lane contributed to this report.