New positions aim to help Kingsport homeless population

In this file photo, a group of homeless people sit in the parking lot of a downtown convenience store. Kingsport has created and filled two new positions that aim to better assess the issues and needs of the homeless and to get them in touch with the best, most appropriate services in our city.

By MATTHEW LANE

KINGSPORT — Since the first of the year, Kingsport has received referrals on more than 240 homeless people, with 71 of them placed in temporary housing and 32 placed in permanent housing.

These are referrals that have come from a variety of sources, including law enforcement, school staff, community members and service providers, and regular citizens reaching out on their own. It’s work that’s kept Erin Gray fairly busy since coming on board with the city in January.

Gray is the homeless outreach worker with the Kingsport Police Department, who makes the initial contact with the homeless when police respond to various incidents. She works to assess the needs of the homeless, then puts them on a path toward the best and most appropriate resources.

Her position was one of two created last year to help coordinate services for the homeless population in town. The other position is a homeless services liaison, currently held by Jonathan Anderson, the founder of Engage Tri-Cities.

“Since Erin’s start date in early January, she has really taken the reins of this new position with the city and ran with it,” said City Manager Chris McCartt.

ASSISTING THE HOMELESS

Gray has made contact with or received referrals on 244 homeless individuals.

These are people at different levels of homelessness: couch homeless, renting a hotel room, staying in temporary shelters or living on the streets.

During the course of Gray and Anderson’s work, they were able to temporarily house 71 of these people at a hotel as a result of Cares Act funds.

Some have transitioned out of the hotel and into other forms of stability, Gray said.

“A big accomplishment that has been achieved is that 32 people have been successfully, permanently and independently housed,” Gray said. “Another accomplishment is that a total of nine individuals have been reunified with family members in an effort to create a long-term support system.”

In addition to addressing housing needs, Gray said eight people have been sent to alcohol and drug rehab, 20 have been referred to community mental health facilities, and 11 to Providence Medical Clinic.

CREATING A COALITION

More than a year ago, Kingsport started down the path of addressing the growing homeless population in town. Partnering with the United Way, the city began crafting a long-term strategy, with the initial steps being 1) a survey of existing agencies that provide services to the homeless, 2) the creation of a homeless coalition of community members and nonprofits to identify the gaps in services, and 3) the development of a comprehensive action plan.

Anderson, the homeless liaison for the city, said representatives from 20 local organizations are currently involved with the coalition, meeting every other month to come up with an action plan. One of the main objectives to come out of this process is for the city to have a coordinated entry point for the homeless, where they are given access to housing and assistance based on their level of need and resources.

“We are in the process right now of forming some subcommittees so we can do a needs assessment for the community to basically see where we are with our organizations,” Anderson said. “Who’s doing what, what needs to happen, and what is currently happening. Then, we can identify our areas of focus, whether it’s housing, mental health or addiction.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced changes to nearly every aspect of our lives. Businesses, restaurants, industries, schools and government have all had to adapt to the ever-changing landscape that is the coronavirus. The same applies to the homeless.

One example Anderson gave deals with the Social Security office. Normally, if you needed a Social Security card, you could go to the office and have that processed in about a week. Now, Anderson said, you have to mail in the paperwork, wait for it to come back and even send in physical identification cards.

“That process has extended the time for getting documents and getting into housing and employment,” Anderson said.

In a recent presentation, Anderson listed a few areas for growth when it comes to the homeless. These include improved communication between local agencies, a streamlined organizational process, and comprehensive case management.

It’ll likely be next year before an overall comprehensive plan for managing the homeless is finalized.

“The unfortunate thing is there is no quick fix, no one-size-fits-all solution. It will just take time,” Anderson said.