JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – City workers removed chairs and tables from a downtown Johnson City breezeway on Friday afternoon.
The action comes just several months after a renovation at the space between after the city received complaints about people loitering in and around the breezeway. Those complaints have included allegations of drug activity, exposure and other behaviors that several business owners and patrons have complained to city officials about, saying they are impacting the success of nearby establishments.
“We have reports of certain individuals exposing themselves, changing clothes,” Assistant City Manager Charlie Stahl said. “Public works crews, along with assistance from the police department went down to address this in the breezeway and remove folks from that area.”
Multiple proprietors have built relationships with some of the people who frequent the area and say they fully recognize a downtown business environment is by nature going to be different from one at a mall.
But people who work near the area have told News Channel 11 that common perceptions about the men and women who have staked out the space — that they are likely all homeless — are incorrect. The downtown area has numerous income-assisted apartments, and because mental health and addiction issues are common, several who spoke on condition of anonymity said they’ve learned from some of the people they’ve met the area has become a target for some drug dealers to exploit.
The breezeway runs between East Main Street and the Downtown Square parking lot, making it accessible for vehicles to come and go.
The problem, owners and customers say, comes when activity is concentrated and the kinds of activities Stahl mentioned proliferate to create an environment that some potential customers — or even existing ones — won’t tolerate.
Michael Short, co-owner of Artisan’s Village, said some of his fellow business owners have been experiencing problems with loitering and panhandling.
“Our particular business because of our location has not been particularly impacted by that; however, I know a lot of business owners downtown have expressed a concern about how it’s negatively impacted their businesses,” Short said.
Lorraine Washington and her husband Elmer own Taste Budz, a small restaurant with outdoor seating only at the corner of Roan and Market streets.
She said they’ve fed people — a number of them not homeless, but living in the downtown area — through the years. They’ve tried to keep a congenial relationship and have generally fared okay through their 21 years at the location across Market from the John Sevier Center. She said this year has been different.
“People have been coming into our space, sleeping on our furniture and driving us to the point where we’re considering putting a fence around it,” Washington said. “It’s the worst we’ve ever seen it, and I believe it definitely impacts our business.”
“We as a community have to figure out a way forward that protects the dignity of the folks that we’re talking about, but also protects the investment of people who run the businesses downtown,” Short said.
Stahl also agreed that long-term solutions still need to be looked into.
“Something has to be addressed sooner or later, and this is again a short-term remedy today,” Stahl said. “Certainly, it will not solve the problem tomorrow.”