Advocates face ongoing challenges trying to create a homeless shelter in Kingsport

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KINGSPORT, Tenn. (WJHL)- Advocates for the homeless population gathered at Glen Bruce Park on Wednesday for a prayer vigil. As several local religious leaders offered prayers, the Kingsport Homeless Ministry voiced their goal to create a better life for the city’s homeless.

Finding shelter for these individuals remains an ongoing challenge. Homeless Ministry Board Chairman Bobby Flowers said the coalition is working to create a shelter and day center in town.

“The need is just growing. And we know we need to get this day center and shelter, overnight shelter up and running,” he said.

A prayer vigil held by the Kingsport Homeless Ministry

Flowers said funding would come from grants and donations. They have a few possible locations in mind for the shelter, including a building on Center Street and another on Wexler Street. The group is also considering constructing their own building on land they would purchase.

Flowers said in a perfect world, the shelter would be ready before winter. However, the process hasn’t been easy.

“We’ve been at this now for almost two years,” said Flowers. “That’s been one of our big obstacles – where to put this? Because quite frankly we get a lot of push from communities anywhere we go. So we’ve got to find that place that makes everybody happy.”

The City of Kingsport launched its homeless coalition plan in January in partnership with the United Way. A social worker with the Kingsport Police Department and a homeless services liaison with the United Way were hired. Since then, Flowers said these workers have helped over 30 individuals find shelter at a local hotel during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Some have found permanent homes,” said Flowers. “It’s been not just a good experience, but a great learning experience.”

The Kingsport BMA is also scheduled to hear an update on homelessness at its July 6th meeting. City leaders have also discussed the issue extensively at past town halls.

Michael Gillis, director of Kingsport non-profit Hunger First, knows how challenging trying to have a shelter can be.

“A wall, after a wall, after a wall,” Gillis said.

City authorities cited Gillis this winter for using his building as a temporary overnight shelter for the homeless. Authorities said Hunger First wasn’t up to fire code and wasn’t properly zoned. Gillis said he worked toward getting the building up to code and pushed for rezoning. But the rezoning was ultimately denied last week by the Kingsport BMA. This came after the city planning commission advised against it and several community members voiced concerns about the rezoning.

SEE ALSO: Rezoning request to house Kingsport homeless denied at BMA meeting

“I feel like I’ve been duped,” Gillis said. “Nothing will happen in this city. It is very obvious between me getting voted down, Hunger First getting voted down in the zoning committee, that nobody wants homeless people here.”

The space that used to shelter homeless individuals at Hunger First is now empty

Gillis says he supports the Homeless Ministry pursuing a shelter, but he’s skeptical it will happen.

“They have to go through channels. And again, you have to go through the city,” he said.

Gillis believes there are over 100 individuals in the area with no place to sleep at night. Hunger First was permitted to operate as a day shelter after a compromise with the city in January. Gillis said the day center is no longer allowed amid the pandemic. Hunger First is now open on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday. Gillis said they serve 60-90 people on their hot meal days.

After years of working with Kingsport’s homeless population, Gillis also believes any shelter that might be built needs to have low requirements for staying there.

“If indeed the shelter is not created in such a way that there’s no barrier, you will have more of the same. [The homeless] will not want to come,” he said. “If you say, ‘well you’re messed up, this, that, and the other, you can’t come here tonight,’ then you’ve defeated your own purpose. If you drug test, you’ve defeated your own purpose.”

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