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Kingsport struggles with homelessness

Updated: Feb 25, 2021

The city of Kingsport, Tennessee faced strong reactions from its citizens after making the decision to drill blocks of wood into the center of all public benches in September. The city did this to prevent people, particularly the homeless, from sleeping or reclining on the benches.

Kingsport resident, Eliza Smiddy Boyce, expressed her opinion on the issue by posting on her Facebook wall a picture of a bench with the caption, “SHAME ON KINGSPORT! They have placed dividers on benches to force the homeless to sleep on the ground... I am ashamed for East Tennessee today!”

Kingsport’s decision comes at a time when the homeless population in the city is rapidly increasing. According to the most recent “point in time” survey done in January of this year by the city, there are 136 people who live in the city limits who identify as homeless. The growing population has gotten so much attention that the city is attempting to form a homeless coalition to tackle the problem.

At the September meeting of the Board of Mayor and Alderman, citizens from the area voiced their concerns about the issues the new population has brought. Becky Rockwell of Kingsport said she came across four homeless people with open drug paraphernalia downtown near her office. Kim Jones, who lives downtown, said she has seen more than 30 people out in the streets, oftentimes with shopping carts, near her apartment after midnight. Robin Cleary, the executive director of Keep Kingsport Beautiful, recently discovered a homeless person camping outside in the woods behind her home.

“We are answering probably 150 calls a week to two weeks downtown over homeless issues alone, thefts, assaults, stabbings, robberies, using the bathroom in alleyways, disturbances, etc.,” said officer Breven Addington, of the Kingsport City police department. “Kingsport has more missions and shelters than Johnson City and Bristol combined, and yet, they aren’t getting people back on their feet, and the population just keeps growing.”

Kingsport Alderman James Phillips posted a long note to his Facebook page on Sept. 25 detailing the large amount of services available to those in Kingsport who have fallen on hard times. According to Phillips, there are 14 food pantries in the downtown area between Wilcox Road and Riverport Road, as well as five organizations that allow people to stay overnight.

“We have an amazing safety net in Kingsport for people who fall on hard times and need a hand up. What we cannot do is cater to the criminals, drug dealers, and drug addicts that are harassing citizens on a daily basis,” Phillips posted to his Facebook page.

Drug use cannot be separated from the homeless issue. As noted by Phillips, those organizations that allow people to stay overnight do so with the expectation that those taking advantage of the services will follow the rules, which include maintaining sobriety. That can be a challenge for many, considering that the United States numbers from the National Coalition for the Homeless indicate that 38% of the homeless population are alcohol dependent, while 26% are addicted to drugs. Thirty-three percent also suffer from mental illness.

The Coalition for the Homeless is a new idea brought forth by the city, but it is still unclear exactly what kinds of procedures this organization would undertake once it is formed. Plus, barriers remain. Pew Research Polls from 2014 found that 51% of responders think the government cannot afford to do more to help the needy, while 44% said that poor people have it easy today because they can receive government benefits without doing anything in return.

The Coalition argues that federal, state, or local housing assistance programs go a long way towards solving the homelessness issue, followed by linking those in the housing to drug prevention/addiction outlets or other services they may need. Of course, funneling homeless people into more permanent housing would not be completely free, as it would take taxpayer money and convincing the community of the need for more spending on welfare programs.

The lack of concrete answers about the solution to the rising population of homeless will only continue the acceleration of the bench issues Kingsport is dealing with.

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