From staff reports
KINGSPORT — With less than a week until Christmas, the Salvation Army is hoping local residents will help “Rescue Christmas” with increased giving at the iconic red kettles.
The Salvation Army is seeing a slump in its Red Kettle effort this year. Fewer kettle locations and fewer bell ringers, coupled with less foot traffic in some areas, have left the campaign short. As of Dec. 15, Salvation Army units across the Tri-Cities had reached just 60% (or $267,435) of their $450,000 goal.
“The level of giving actually seems to be up. But we have had fewer bell ringers and volunteers this year, so we haven’t been able to cover all of our locations, which equates to collections being down,” Major Joseph May of the Kingsport Salvation Army explained.
The Kingsport unit is down about $10,000 from this point last year. The Bristol unit reports a decrease of about $8,000.
But May is still optimistic.
“We still have a week to go, though. And because of the way the calendar lays out, we actually have two more days to ring bells than last year. We are counting on the generosity of our Tri-Cities neighbors to help us cross the finish line and Rescue Christmas for thousands of needy neighbors across the region,” May said.
Funds collected during the Red Kettle Campaign are used to supply food and toys at Christmas, but also to meet direct service needs such as feeding programs, clothing, rent and utility payments, emergency shelter, and youth character-building programs throughout the year.
Angel gifts were due on Saturday in Kingsport.
The Bristol and Johnson City units have already collected and distributed their toys.
“We are humbled by the tremendous show of support for our Angel Tree Program,” May said. “In such a challenging year for all of us, it is truly remarkable to see how people still think of others who are less fortunate than themselves.”
The Salvation Army, an evangelical part of the universal Christian church established in 1865, has been supporting those in need in His name without discrimination for 130 years in the United States.
Nearly 30 million Americans receive assistance from the Salvation Army each year through its broad array of social services, which range from providing food for the hungry, relief for disaster victims, assistance for the disabled, outreach to the elderly and ill, clothing and shelter to the homeless and opportunities for underprivileged children. Eighty-two cents of every dollar spent is used to carry out those services in 5,000 communities nationwide.
By MATTHEW LANE
KINGSPORT — A majority of the homeless people in the downtown area are either from or have lived in East Tennessee for more than 10 years. Many have been homeless for less than five years, just over half report some type of mental illness, and many have a distrust of law enforcement.
These were some of the findings of a recent survey of 42 homeless people who call the streets of downtown home.
“We wanted to get information about as many homeless as we could,” said Emily Lane, a volunteer at Hunger First and one of the volunteers who helped conduct the survey. “Part of it was we wanted to see if what we’ve heard throughout the city ... that homeless are from Kingsport or from outside the area.”
ORIGINS OF THE SURVEY
Lane is a 2004 Dobyns-Bennett High School graduate who moved back to Kingsport in 2014 after spending a decade living in Nashville. Today, she studies microbiology and public health at ETSU and after graduation in May, she plans to attend medical school.
She first became aware of Hunger First through a friend and over the past year has become more involved in the organization. Recently, Lane sat down with Hunger First Director Michael Gillis and former Sullivan County Commissioner Joe Herron to come up with another way to help the homeless.
“All three of us met and started talking about what we could do for the homeless, and we said why not ask them some questions?” Lane said. “We assured them the information wouldn’t be used against them, that it would be used to help them.”
The survey took place on two days in early November at Shades of Grace Church and the Kitchen of Hope. The one-page survey had 26 questions. Lane approached the homeless individually and sat with them while they filled it out.
The surveys were not dropped off and picked up at a later time, Lane said. A few of the homeless chose not to participate, and in some instances, when the person could not read or write, Lane said she had to help them fill out the form.
In the end, the volunteers received 42 responses.
TYPES OF QUESTIONS ASKED
The survey asked about basic information of each person (age, gender, birthplace, job history, veteran status, education level and any medical issues), then went into deeper subjects (what organizations they’ve reached out to, if they fear the police, and if they’ve ever had thoughts of hurting themselves).
One question asked about coping mechanisms. Another asked if they felt the world was against them, what their immediate needs were: food, shelter, medical assistance or a job. The survey asked about their special talents (art, music, singing), five positives in their life, and if you could change something from your past what would it be?
Lane said they did not ask the homeless about their criminal record, or if they’re currently using illegal drugs. Forty-two people participated in the survey, though not every person answered every single question. Some gave “silly” answers to a few questions, and a couple of answers could be taken with a grain of salt.
However, most of the answers appear to be honest and genuine, Lane said.
“I was surprised by the number of people from here and the suicide question, their attitudes surprised me. If I had to be in their shoes ... I just couldn’t do it,” Lane said.
According to the results of the survey:
• 90% of respondents were either born or lived in East Tennessee for more than 10 years.
• 27% percent have been homeless more than five years; 27% less than a year; and 46% less than five years.
• 55% did not graduate high school or obtain a GED.
• 69% do not receive monetary compensation.
• 42% need an ID.
• 81% have medical issues and 51% are on medication.
• 60% have a distrust or fear of law enforcement.
Of the most pressing needs among the homeless, these rank as follows: shelter (74%), jobs (54%), programs (51%), medical assistance (38%), showers/restrooms/transportation (23%) and food/clothing (23%).
HOW THE INFORMATION WILL BE USED
Lane said Hunger First and the volunteers plan to use this information to aid in the development of programs for the homeless. Cindy’s Corner has reopened and is offering different classes, Lane said, such as ones on first aid, literacy and art.
“We wanted to start something for them to keep them busy at some point in the day and give them hope and faith. So they’ll have more interests than just living on the street,” Lane said. “That was an idea: to see what skills they have and what they enjoy. If they like movies, maybe we can have a movie night, or if they like sports, we could play baseball or something.”
Additional survey responses could be forthcoming and Lane said the volunteers are hoping to do a follow-up survey in about six months to keep the information as current as possible.
“We’re just trying to help them and let them know that someone is out there thinking of them,” Lane said.
By J.H. OSBORNE
BLOUNTVILLE — Imagine you have 700 employees and 120 have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began. Would having had more than 17% of your workforce sick, or quarantined in case they’re contagious, impact your ability to conduct business? The number of employees out or working from home at any time is actually higher than 17% when you consider those who have been quarantined due to their potential exposure, rather than a positive test.
Guess what? If you’re a Sullivan County resident, you are that employer. Sullivan County government’s general fund employs 700 people, Mayor Richard Venable told the Times News on Friday. And 120 of them have tested positive “thus far.”
Of that number, 75 were in the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office, Venable said. And in addition to the 120, an estimated 30 employees of the county school system have tested positive, Venable noted.
“It paints a grim picture,” Venable said. “It’s more grim than I wanted to show. But the public does need to know.”
Services provided by Sullivan County government have not been completely interrupted at any point during the COVID-19 pandemic, Venable said. But, he added, access to many services is limited as county offices and officeholders have adapted their customer service practices to embrace social distancing and other precautionary measures aimed at reducing transmission of the virus.
Most if not all county offices have had at least one case of COVID-19 among their staff, or have had staff members unable to return to work while in quarantine due to potential exposure to the virus while outside the workplace.
Venable himself recently completed quarantine after being exposed through another county official who later tested positive. COVID-19 has swept through the sheriff’s office. It temporarily closed the clerk’s office in downtown Kingsport (it reopened for drive-through only service on Friday). The county’s budget office usually sees a steady stream of visitors, mostly county employees and officeholders. Last week it became by-appointment-only, and conducting business by telephone or email was strongly encouraged. There have been cases in the county trustee’s office. And the county attorney has had back-to-back quarantines due to potential exposures.
Plexiglass screens with pass-through slots are now the norm at some county offices, keeping public/employee contact to a minimum. A table outside the trustee’s office gives taxpayers the option to use computers there to look up their tax bill, then process credit card payments on connected equipment.
When the Sullivan County Commission held its monthly meeting Thursday, it was the first time the 24-member group conducted in-person business since plexiglass dividers were placed between members’ desk areas. And Friday morning one of the commissioners who attended tested positive for COVID-19.
“He went to the doctor for a sinus infection,” Venable said. “And they said, ‘While you’re here let’s do a COVID test.’ He didn’t think he had anything but a sinus infection.”
On Friday afternoon Venable told the Times News he had spoken with officials at the Sullivan County Regional Health Department about the potential exposure to other commissioners who were at that meeting Thursday night.
Venable said the two commissioners who sat beside the commissioner testing positive for COVID-19 were notified to quarantine themselves.
“By CDC guidelines, anybody that was within six feet of him for more than 15 minutes needs to quarantine,” Venable said. “This is the reality of it. This stuff is real.”
Taking the virus seriously was brought up during the commission’s meeting Thursday.
Commissioner Mark Vance asked everyone to pray for the family of a 20-plus-years employee of the county who died Thursday. Vance said he and others knew the employee had been hospitalized with COVID-19, had been released, and had a cardiac episode at home Thursday morning. Then, Vance said, he and others were notified during the commission meeting that the employee had died.
“Whether or not you take this serious about COVID-19 ... I’ve had three friends die. ... This is serious,” Vance said. “Please take care and protect yourself during Christmas.”
Venable also urged the commission to take COVID-19 precautions seriously and warned that local health officials have projected the county’s number of COVID-19 cases could reach 14,000 by mid-January. Venable said he was given that estimate on Dec. 11. On that date the Tennessee Department of Health reported 7,289 cases in Sullivan County since the COVID-19 pandemic began. One week later, two days ago, the TDH reported that number had grown to 9,315.
With that in mind, Venable said he is considering issuing stronger public guidelines than the current mask order.
“I’m giving consideration to looking at how these numbers continue to evolve,” Venable said. “The order that we’re under now, that order could well change at the first of the year. We started off (earlier this year) with ‘stay at home.’ I’m considering if these numbers continue, urging people to stay home more after the first of the year. And in the courthouse we will consider if any offices need to shut down based on individual numbers within those offices.”