BRISTOL, Tenn./Va. (WJHL) — In about five weeks, camping on public property in Tennessee will become a felony.
Right now it’s a felony to camp on state property. But a bill passed by the General Assembly and made into law without the governor’s signature expands it to any public land.
A federal agency that tracks the homeless population says as of January 2020, over 7,200 people in the Volunteer State are homeless. And some nonprofits are seeing an increase locally.
Earlier this month, the Johnson City Salvation Army told us it has seen more homeless come in for help this year compared to last.
Now, community members and leaders are joining forces to help the homeless.
“We can get into arguments of whether they’re coming from outside or if they’re just only local people but they’re homeless and the homeless is a community problem,” said Bristol, Tennessee Police Chief Matt Austin. “How we solve that is right here in this room.”
Today, a homeless coalition of more than 100 people met in Bristol, Tennessee to find ways to target and solve these issues for both Tennessee and Virginia.
“We want people to have the services they need and are willing to take and also protect a lot of personal investments in this community that we know visitors love when they come here – the warm, friendly welcoming hospitality that we’re known for and that it continues to allow us to prosper and grow,” said Bristol Chamber CEO and President Beth Rhinehart. “It’s addressing it from a compassionate and resource side but also being protective of business economy and our visitor experience that we know people love.”
It was hosted by the United Way of Bristol Tennessee and Virginia and the Bristol Chamber of Commerce. The audience included government leaders, business owners, churches, non-profits law enforcement, and more.
“Sometimes, we’re the first place people call when they’re homeless and need services,” said Lisa Coffer, the Executive Director of United Way of Bristol Tennessee and Virginia. “we have seen a huge increase in the number of homeless in our community that are reaching out to us.
Not only did they debate ways to solve homelessness, but they also heard about how it’s impacting local businesses.
“Your customers that have older children that come in….they don’t come to your place. A lot of the downtown businesses have had people come to them and say ‘Hey, I’d like to come but I’m a little worried to come at this time…or people that come later, eat late downtown, and have to park a street back,” Allen Hurley explained from the crowd.
The workshop was facilitated by the vice president of the United Way of Blount County which dealt with similar issues.
“It’s very easy to say, ‘Here are the issues for homelessness and that’s the direction we’re going’….but there’s a lot of little steps between here and there,” said Wendy Wand after leading the session. “Identifying what those steps are and how to really make tangible goals towards that work is really the direction we started today.”
The top need identified: a day center for the homeless, which is already in the works.
“It does give a place of refuge and when we have that place to be,” said Margaret Feierabend with Family Promise of Bristol, Tennessee. “Then there’s opportunity to build relationships and help people move to the next step, if can they find housing or can they be eligible to stabilize their lives.”
A place to be will be a day center that not only provides a safe space but services and resources as well. It’s a collaboration between Proverbs 3:27, Family Promise of Bristol, and the Salvation Army where it will be housed.
“We need to just get the data, is what we’re seeing actually homelessness are there other issues,” said Maj. Brooks Gilliam with the Salvation Army of Bristol. “And then what obstacles are there to folks recovering or moving from experiencing homelessness into permanent housing or jobs or into other care that they might need.”
The center is expected to start up sometime this summer. Those in charge Monday say it was a coincidence that this was held so close to the start of Tennessee’s upcoming law penalizing people for camping.
“This hurts anyone that is homeless, about to be homeless or that is working with our homeless,” Wand said. “This bill is inhumane and causes people to become figures instead of actual people. The reality is that being homeless is not illegal. There are a lot of things that cause people to become homeless and if somebody that has not experienced homelessness is not at the table for changing policy or voicing about policy then we’re going to make decisions that are negatively impacting people. So, a bill like this is going to do nothing but negatively impact not only our homeless population but the rest of our community because more resources are going to be spent to criminalize people. More people are going to be put into our jails. More people are going to be keeping people from succeeding.”
They do expect resources to be more heavily used when it begins.
“I think it’s not really a good idea,” Gilliam said. “We hope that means more folks will be in but the truth is that there are some folks that just prefer to be outdoors and it’s very unfortunate that we’re going to criminalize that instead of seeking to find a way to better the situation.”
The Chamber of Commerce and United Way plan to host more coalition meetings in the future and will set the dates and times based on feedback from today.