The problem, according to several city officials, is that the property is zoned for business, not residential. Officials also say it’s a safety issue, given that the building does not have a sprinkler system.
Michael Gillis, the director of Hunger First, said the citation calls for him to appear in city court next week.
“I'm not giving up,” Gillis said of his intention to fight the citation. “I was trying to keep people from freezing to death, getting hypothermia and getting sick. All I’m trying to do is temporarily keep them out of the cold.”
Kingsport received a number of anonymous tips last month about several homeless people spending the night on the porch of the Myrtle Street property. Gillis said on New Year’s Eve, six Kingsport police officers, a fire marshal and a building official came by in response to the complaints.
Gillis explained he let about two dozen homeless people spend the night because the temperature dropped below 30 degrees. He admits his property is not equipped for overnight stays and doesn’t have a sprinkler system.
According to the Kingsport Fire Department, this is the third time the fire marshal’s office has responded to the Hunger First location in recent years.
In April 2016, a routine inspection found multiple people sleeping overnight in the building, and at that time Gillis was given 30 days to find alternate living arrangements for those folks. Then in July 2018, in response to a complaint, city officials discovered a similar situation and again said a sprinkler system and zoning change would be needed if the building were used for overnight stays.
Ken Weems, planning manager for the city, said he has spoken to Gillis and advised him the property needs to be rezoned to R-3, multi-family residential use. This zone allows for boarding houses and dormitories, which is essentially what Hunger First used the building for in December.
Weems said a sprinkler system is not required under an R-3 zone, but if the building is used as a dormitory, then such a system would be needed.
Hunger First (829 Myrtle St.) was founded in 1996 and provides food and clothing to anyone in need, no questions asked. It’s a mantra Gillis still holds firm to this day.
“I’m going to stand up for the people,” Gillis said about his upcoming appearance in city court. “Hopefully, I’ll get a stay to where I’m complying until people can come up here to help me get the building to where it needs to be.
“Sometimes you have to fight back. I can’t give in this time and I’m not going to give in.”
Johnathon Anderson, the founder of Engage Tri-Cities, is now the Homeless Services liaison — a new position created through a partnership between Kingsport and the United Way. Anderson said he’s working with Gillis to find housing options for the people who would spend the night at Hunger First.
“I’ve reached out to interested parties, and we’re trying to figure out how to help house these folks, either temporarily or permanently,” Anderson said.