Kingsport Times-News: Two Kingsports: Shining a light on homelessness in the Model City
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Two Kingsports: Shining a light on homelessness in the Model City

Holly Viers • Dec 29, 2018 at 9:00 AM

KINGSPORT — If you’ve driven down Sullivan Street recently, you’ve no doubt seen the transformation taking place through the construction of Town Park Lofts.

This luxury apartments project was deemed so crucial to the success of downtown’s redevelopment that city officials granted the Georgia-based development company a deal where it will pay no property taxes on the $32 million complex for at least the next 20 years. The payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) plan translates into $7.9 million in deferred property taxes.

Now drive just a bit further down Sullivan. That storefront church you see just past the Cherokee Street intersection is Shades of Grace, a United Methodist congregation. Pastor Will Shewey has found, on more than one occasion, homeless people sleeping in the open behind the church. Earlier this month he posted a photo on Facebook of one such man.

“It should break our hearts,” he said. “These are someone’s wayward children/loved ones.”

Luxury loft apartments. Homeless people sleeping in the alley behind Shades of Grace. Some people might be surprised to see such a contrast in living conditions on one Kingsport street. But the folks who work with the city’s neediest population aren’t surprised. While city leaders like to point out there is only one Kingsport in the United States, others will tell you there are two Kingsports right here.

Over the last few months, the Times News has explored homelessness in Kingsport. We found the problem is complicated, but not insurmountable. And there are people working both publicly and behind the scenes to fight it.

What is homelessness?

Merriam-Webster defines homelessness as the state of “having no home or permanent place of residence.” People often equate this to living on the streets, but that’s not always the case.

“The majority of the families I work with are temporarily staying with friends or relatives. It’s called ‘doubled-up,’ and it’s due to a loss of housing or economic hardship,” said Michele Wilder, homeless education program coordinator for Kingsport City Schools. “We also work with families who stay in low-cost motels due to a loss of housing, as well as shelters, and sometimes they may be a tenant at the KOA campground, but the children I work with specifically fall into that category.”

A national issue

On a single night in 2017, 553,742 people were experiencing homelessness in the U.S., according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. For every 10,000 people in the country, 17 were experiencing homelessness.

Last year, homelessness increased for the first time in seven years, according to HUD data. More than one-fifth of people experiencing homelessness were children (21 percent or 114,829), 70 percent were over age 24 and 10 percent were between the ages of 18 and 24.

Close to home

The Appalachian Regional Coalition on Homelessness serves as the HUD administrator for homeless assistance in Northeast Tennessee. ARCH conducts yearly point-in-time counts to identify the number of homeless people in cities and counties throughout the region.

This year’s count, conducted between noon Jan. 23 and noon Jan. 24, identified 112 homeless individuals in Kingsport: 51 in emergency shelters, 40 in transitional housing and 21 unsheltered. The count, however, does not include people who are staying with friends or relatives.

Though this represents a slight decrease from 2017, when 116 people in Kingsport were identified as homeless, nonprofit leaders believe there is more work to be done to solve the problem.

“To say that there’s not a need in this city is preposterous,” said Michael Gillis, executive director of Hunger First, “because the problem is we’ve overlooked it for so long in this city. We’ve overlooked our children, we’ve overlooked those in need, we’ve overlooked our homeless for so long.”

Homelessness in Kingsport isn’t a new phenomenon, as Shewey points out. While some churches and other organizations have recognized the problem, Shewey said others have chosen not to acknowledge it.

“There was a city mission, which was established in 1936 on East Sullivan Street … and in 1938, they were feeding people daily, clothing people, preaching the gospel to them on East Sullivan Street in the same block that we’re in right now, 80 years ago,” Shewey said. “So they (the homeless) were here. People choose not to see them.”

Looking ahead

Over the next few days, the Times News will publish several stories about homelessness in Kingsport. Stories will discuss the factors that lead to homelessness, the effect of homelessness on children and adults, the city’s response to the issue and the possible solutions.

Tomorrow: We look into the people who are homeless in Kingsport and the causes and effects of homelessness.

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