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Bench modification: Crime deterrent or attack on homeless?

Matthew Lane • Sep 24, 2019 at 9:09 AM

KINGSPORT — The Model City last week installed wooden blocks on the flat benches in Glen Bruce Park and along the Kingsport Greenbelt.

City leaders say the measure was done to help address the criminal activity taking place in those locations and is one part of a larger plan to manage the homeless situation in town. However, opponents to the measure are calling the wooden blocks “hostile architecture” and say the city is being heartless and cruel for installing them.

A picture of the benches in Glen Bruce Park went viral on social media over the weekend and an online petition calling for the removal of the blocks had received more than 4,500 signatures by Monday evening.

During a town hall meeting Monday evening at the Lynn View Community Center, where the topic of homelessness took up much of the discussion time, Mayor Pat Shull said he stands behind the city’s decision 100 percent.

It’s an issue that definitely got a lot of attention in a short amount of time.

THE HOMELESS SITUATION

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.

Over the past two months, city officials have had a number of conversations about the homeless situation in town and the best way to manage the issue. The Board of Mayor and Aldermen has signed off on a comprehensive approach, a plan that will likely be multi-faceted and one that will take time to fully implement.

It will involve numerous nonprofit organizations, local churches and volunteers, plus there will be a law enforcement element and possible changes to city ordinances. The BMA recently agreed Kingsport should partner with the United Way to create a homeless coalition of groups that serve the homeless and craft a comprehensive plan to better help them.

Kingsport also plans to hire a social worker for the police department later this year, someone knowledgeable about the homeless, the issues they face and a person who can help at the scene when police are dispatched.

And finally, the city is dealing with crimes committed by the homeless, many of which have taken place in and around the Kingsport Public Library and along the Greenbelt. Numerous complaints by downtown residents and businesses to city staff and the BMA have prompted these actions.

ADDRESSING THE ISSUE

Kingsport City Manager Chris McCartt said on Monday the decision to install the wooden blocks was made in mid-August with the BMA’s knowledge and that, for now, they’re only being installed on the benches in those two parks.

“There have been individuals in the park at night when the park is closed. Three or four weeks ago police responded to a call where a person was kicking out the sides of the gazebo and did significant damage and we’ve found drug paraphernalia on the grounds,” McCartt said. “We’ve received repeated comments from patrons about being accosted and some staff didn’t feel comfortable leaving at night.”

In response, the Kingsport Police Department increased the number of patrols in and around the library and added cameras inside and outside the building. The city is adding lights near Glen Bruce Park to illuminate the grounds at night.

“These actions have been portrayed as heartless and cruel, I think what we’re trying to do is address the issues associated with crime rather than with the homeless,” McCartt said. And when it comes to the Greenbelt, police have responded to incidents where patrons were chased by people and others making lewd comments to them.

NOT MAKING A DIFFERENCE

Will Shewey, the pastor of Shades of Grace church on Sullivan Street and a member of the Homeless Ministry, said for many of the homeless, the wooden blocks won’t make much of a difference.

“For the most part the homeless already know they’re not welcome in the downtown area. Most of them have been pushed back into encampments out of sight and out of mind,” Shewey said.

Who the wooden blocks will affect are the most vulnerable of our citizens, Shewey added. The mentally challenged, the handicapped and those who have chronic illnesses, are afraid of the dark and scared to be alone.

“I’ve been told the reason they seek out the benches to lie on and sleep is because it’s lighted, there’s traffic and they feel safe,” Shewey said. “It’s just pushing those people further back into the shadows and not solving the problem.”

Johnson City banned camping on city property in the downtown area last year, with opponents claiming the ordinance unfairly targeted the city’s homeless population. McCartt said a camping ban is one of the things Kingsport will be considering.

“Anything and everything related to the subject of homelessness is being evaluated,” McCartt said. “We have looked at what other cities have done, what Johnson City did and I think in time there’s items the BMA may or may not be considering.”

Shewey said he thinks installing the wooden blocks was a hasty and premature move.

“We’re trying to address the situation with the possibility of a shelter or day center ... this pushes them off a place where they felt safe into a position of nowhere else to be,” Shewey said.

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