The number of homeless people clearly visible in the downtown area had increased, raising concerns among some residents and business owners.
One alderman and a city official were leading an effort to explore the homeless situation. They were talking with other stakeholders about their concerns and about what could be done to help people who were homeless.
However, those two officials left their positions (one left town altogether), which meant nothing ever transpired from their efforts, City Manager Jeff Fleming said.
“They had some pretty extensive conversations with the United Way, ARCH (the Appalachian Regional Coalition on Homelessness) and Kermit Addington, who was very passionate about it. It was his life’s work to bring awareness to that topic,” Fleming said, adding that Addington passed away, which also impacted the conversations.
City leaders say Kingsport has numerous affordable housing opportunities and financial aid in the way of grants, vouchers, tax incentives and subsidies for any type of apartment or home, either for rent or purchase. And Kingsport is aggressively investing in its transit system to help remove barriers to mobility so people can get to and from a job so they can pay for housing.
“Kingsport is an affordable place to live, the unemployment rate is historically low and businesses desperately need employees. Yet we’re still experiencing visible homelessness like any other city. Why is that?” Fleming said. “There are systemic problems that need to be dealt with, and a lot of time we want there to be a quick fix and there’s not.”
GETTING TO THE ROOT CAUSE
Fleming said the solution is to get at the root cause of homelessness.
“Homelessness is not a crime and arresting them is not the answer. We owe them the human dignity to help them up,” Fleming said. “Are we truly helping break the cycle of homelessness or are we superficially enabling without addressing the root cause of the chronic problem? I think we’re superficial right now.”
Fleming believes one of the root causes of homelessness is the well-known opioid epidemic, which has hit Northeast Tennessee especially hard. When behavior is driven by trying to get that next fix, it can also drive behavior that’s criminal, Fleming said.
“That ends up resulting in an arrest, a criminal record and hindering a person’s ability to get a job,” Fleming said. “If you can’t work, how do you pay the bills, how do you eat and where do you sleep? These are chronic issues that don’t have easy fixes.”