Homeless men say blocks on park benches deterring public sleeping send harsh message


KINGSPORT, Tenn. (WJHL)- James Felker, 32, says he has two jobs but he sleeps in a stairwell in Kingsport.

He’s one of the dozens estimated to be living unsheltered in the Model City in 2019.

“Just having a safe place to sleep for two or three hours really helps us,” Felker said. “Right now, I’m going on two hours of sleep myself and I barely make it. I’m constantly tired.”

Jerry Roberts, 45, said he often doesn’t sleep at all.

“I just wander around,” he said. “I went to jail five times for sleeping in public.”

Both men said they were frustrated when they found out wooden blocks were recently installed on park benches in Kingsport to deter homeless people from sleeping in public spaces.

Wooden blocks can be found in Glen Bruce Park, the Greenbelt in Kingsport and other public spaces on wooden benches.

“The city is literally saying to the homeless ‘get out of our town,'” Felker said, “It’s not our choice to be homeless. It’s the income. It’s not enough to make it.”

“It feels like they want us to give in, give up,” said Roberts.

City Manager Chris McCartt told News Channel 11 Sunday his office approved the installation of these blocks without a vote from the Kingsport Board of Mayor and Alderman. A city spokesperson said Monday the blocks are not permanent and the BMA could still choose to remove them.

ORIGINAL STORY: Blocks intended to prevent homeless from sleeping on Kingsport benches spark controversy

A change.org petition with more than 42 hundred signatures is calling for the city to do just that.

McCartt said the blocks are needed to help curb crime and enforce park hours.

He emphasized this action alone does not define the city’s stance on addressing homelessness.

Several efforts are underway to fix the root of what advocates call a long-standing problem.

Bobby Flowers with the Kingsport Homeless Ministry said the city has been a good partner in trying to stand up an additional day center and shelter in the area.

“Our biggest obstacle is where to put this shelter. It seems a lot of people don’t want it in their neighborhood,” Flowers said.

He said the Salvation Army is currently the only shelter in Kingsport and there are some limitations on who can stay there.

News Channel 11 confirmed with Salvation Army that registered sex offenders and those with past behavioral problems at the shelter can be banned. They said they only allow people to stay at the shelter “once every six months,” though they make exceptions.

Lilly Gonzalez, program director for “A Safe Harbor Home,” said there’s a shortage of transitional and long-term supportive housing in the region.

“A lot of them [homeless people] have substance abuse issues. They have mental health issues. They have physical issues. How do you become stable if you don’t have a safe place to address all of that?” said Valerie Arrington, case manager for the non-profit.

Gonzalez said the organization has helped house more than 150 people across Northeast Tennessee since 2011, using what she calls a small federal grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“We do a lot with a little,” she said.

Gonzalez said they could do even more if the city or the state were to commit funds to their cause.

She said they’re currently in the process of setting up an outreach center across the street from Shades of Grace Church in Kingsport, meant to be a one-stop-shop to connect people with healthcare resources, job support and social services.

“We’ll be able to help meet some of these needs to where, when we take someone and put them in housing…they’ll have those skills to maintain it,” said Arrington.

The United Way, Kingsport Mayor Pat Shull and Chief of Police David Quillin were not immediately available for an interview Monday.

MORE: Kingsport leaders reveal plan to combat homelessness

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