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Editorial: Help Hunger First help our city’s homeless

Editorial Board • Jan 25, 2020 at 8:30 AM

Who would punish a good deed? No one in a Kingsport courtroom recently. Not the city, which had cited a well-known humanitarian, and not the judge.

As Michael Gillis explained, it was rather cold on New Year’s Eve, and some folks “had nowhere to go and would have had to go back to the street.” So Gillis gave them a place to sleep. And was summoned to court for it.

Gillis is executive director of Hunger First, which came into being in the ’90s through the efforts of Cindy Risk, who hunted down food donations and distributed them to the hungry, no questions asked. When her life was taken in an auto accident, son Michael Gillis picked up and over the years developed a larger vision, “something that Mom always talked about, always dreamed about and desired, but never got a chance to do.”

Under Gillis’ direction, Hunger First expanded. In 2015 it took over an old store at Myrtle and East Center streets in downtown Kingsport to help the homeless with more than food, passing out clothing to both individuals and other ministries. He envisioned a large grocery store where individuals who are struggling with food insecurity could go shopping. He said some people are so ashamed by their current economic situations they do not want to ask for help. A grocery store where they could shop without judgment would be beneficial to those Kingsport citizens who fall through the cracks.

Hunger First would also like to have some type of recreational center for Kingsport teenagers. Gillis said he would like to help those teens who may be struggling but are not taken care of through other means. These are visions that, if realized, would satisfy community needs.

But on New Year’s Eve, Gillis wasn’t thinking about those things. Some folks had arrived who were cold and needed a warm place to sleep, and Gillis was quick to provide it. Problem is the property is zoned for business, not residential, and that’s a perceived safety issue because the business does not have a sprinkler system.

During the hearing, Kingsport Planning Director Ken Weems testified that he had spoken with Gillis twice about the process of changing the zoning of the location from business to residential, a process that would take about three to four months. Gillis, who appeared without legal counsel, told Judge Curt Rose his intent was not to break any laws. “I’m trying to serve a purpose,” he said. Gillis further explained that the people he serves are special cases, with drug and mental issues, that other nonprofits simply aren’t equipped to deal with.

And since temperatures were below 30 degrees on New Year’s Eve, Gillis said he felt the need to let those folks spend the night. Rose admitted Gillis was in a tough spot, weighing his good intentions against the laws of the city. In the end, Rose ruled for Gillis to return on March 9 for an update on the situation. “If you keep the building as a warming place ... there will be no fine since you’re trying to come into compliance,” Rose said. “I appreciate you trying to do the right thing.”

Gillis has a quote to have sprinklers installed but needs help raising the money, as well as for Hunger First’s other good works. If that’s something you’d like to be part of, stop by 829 Myrtle St., or call (423) 765-1144.

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