JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — It was about 1:30 a.m. when Johnson City police found a man slumped over in a vehicle at 141 E. Market St., just steps from the John Sevier Center (JSC) and its 140-plus elderly and disabled residents.
According to a police report, Johnson City Police Department (JCPD) officers found Nathan Oliver with “a large amount of methamphetamine” as well as a pair of brass knuckles. He also had an outstanding arrest warrant.
John Sevier residents say a triangular parking lot adjacent to the building’s own small front lot, owned by Munsey Memorial United Methodist Church, has bred safety and cleanliness problems for a long time.
“I’ve had incidences in the parking lot where I’ve gone to my car and had to deal with a fight right next to my car, that I couldn’t get in my car,” resident Mary Scherzinger said. “I didn’t feel safe, but it’s been happening for years. I’ve not accepted it but I’ve just kind of tolerated it, and all the residents here do. We just tolerate it.”
Police say they can address active crimes or check on people who might need medical attention — a fatal overdose occurred there in July — but without cooperation from the property owner including proper signage and a willingness to prosecute, they can’t enforce trespassing violations.
Munsey’s newly appointed Director of Missions told News Channel 11 changes are coming that he expects will make a big difference for residents.
“The senior pastor (Kip Laxson) is very concerned about the safety over there, about the different things that have gone on,” John Redmond said. “We do not want to have that happen at all over there. We’re working, I think the best way to describe is, working very diligently to clean up that area but also doing it with compassion.”
Scherzinger has lived at the John Sevier for about six years and said the parking lot has been a problem “for years. I’ve not accepted it, but I’ve just kind of tolerated it, and so do all the residents here — we just tolerate it.”
She described the problems as ranging from drug deals and other criminal activity to people loitering all hours of the day and night, camping out in their cars and leaving the lot littered with debris, including needles.
“This is our home,” Scherzinger said. “That’s our back yard and our front yard. We’ve already had a woman that (overdosed) and died in that parking lot. There’s been criminal activity that continues to go on because there’s no supervision.”
Redmond said he considers the lot, with the exception of its being reserved for church services Sunday mornings, as a parking place for residents. “We want to make sure that it is safe,” he said. “We want to make sure that they feel okay.”
Improvements inside spark conversation
Four days after Oliver’s Jan. 23 arrest and five months after the fatal overdose, the parking lot issue came up in a JCDA board meeting. Executive Director Tish Oldham was briefing commissioners on the recent addition of paid security at JSC, which JCDA has owned for several years now.
“Staff is now able to be walked to their car, and that is now happening because there continue to be issues in the parking lot next door,” Oldham said. “There are gatherings of people who are in the abutting parking lot.”
Commissioner Joe Wise confirmed it was Munsey’s lot and then asked, “would it help if that were posted for no trespassing and relevant TCA (Tennessee Code Annotated) code?”
Fellow board member Shannon Castillo — a Realtor who has leased many downtown properties — said that absolutely could help. Additional discussion ensued and after the meeting, Chairman Hank Carr said he supported approaching the church.
“I don’t know how that lot’s managed for them, but we certainly need to have a conversation with them and see if there’s some opportunities for improvement,” he said after calling Munsey “a great downtown partner.”
Oldham said this week the conversation will be an important one and that the residents deserve some results from it. The JCDA bought the John Sevier in 2019 in order to have new and better accommodations built for residents and then sell the iconic former hotel to a developer, but that move is about three years out.
“You always want to make sure that people feel safe, that they feel at home where they are, that they do not feel like they have to look over their shoulder on a regular basis,” Oldham said.
The JCDA will find a willing partner, Redmond said.
“I’m new to this role, so I’ve been having these conversations as to what we do,” he said. “As we’re working towards different solutions, like the signage and the postings, we want to be able to put those to where maybe they don’t get torn off like they have in the past.”
Scherzinger said the police have essentially told residents their hands are tied without such signage and other steps by Munsey.
“I’ve seen them go by in their groups when they are walking the beat and there’s nothing they can do,” she said. “They can only walk by and look for suspicious behavior, but they can’t really do anything about them just hanging out there.”
Nor can JCDA’s new private security — which Scherzinger said has made a big positive difference inside the building in just a month.
“It’s such a relief to come home and know that I can go into my unit and not be accosted by someone, but to go out in the parking lot, it’s a totally different situation,” she said.
JCPD Sergeant Mark Hollis said many business and other non-residential property owners have used the department’s no trespassing program. A packet explains what property owners need to do and they also get a letter to sign stating they have a problem and want motor vehicle or criminal trespassing enforced.
“They sign this agreement that they will assist us in the prosecution of these people that are trespassing,” Hollis said.
Once signs are up and all paperwork is in, if the police are called to a property or witness trespassing, police can make the person leave after explaining the policy.
He said people often go on their way with a warning, and JCPD files a small report that the person has “been trespassed from the property.”
A subsequent violation is a class B misdemeanor, which usually draws a court summons unless a person refuses to leave, in which case they’re taken to jail.
Hollis said the program has been “very effective, especially for the businesses.”
Striking a compassionate balance
Redmond said the church has never had any ill intent and called balancing its service and love to others with holding people accountable “the ultimate challenge.”
“When we think about seeking to share the love of God, it means that we do it in a safe environment that is good for everybody,” he said.
“Munsey is very concerned about the residents, but also very concerned about the unhoused and I think that Munsey as a church wants to find the happy medium between what is helpful and what is hurtful.”
Scherzinger was homeless herself once, she worships at Munsey and she has raised the issue before. She said she doesn’t believe Munsey would tolerate the same situation at its parking lot on the church’s side of Roan Street — where, in fact, a no trespassing sign with TCA codes listed is on prominent display.
“I have a lot of respect for Munsey,” she said. “I appreciate them very much and that they help the people they do.”
But she noted that most of the congregation doesn’t live right across the street from the church.
“If they had at their front door … what we have at ours, they would do something. They would enforce the loitering, they would not tolerate it. They wouldn’t want to raise their families, have guests over to their place knowing that they would have to go through a gauntlet of homeless who are looking for handouts and drugs.”
Redmond said action is coming.
“How do we do that diligently, effectively, but with tact and compassion? But there are several things that (residents) can be rest assured that it’s going to be in a better, safer environment soon.”