JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – For many in the Tri-Cities, the only thing separating them from homelessness is one truly bad day.
At the Appalachian Regional Coalition on Homelessness (ARCH), each day’s mission is to build a support network that keeps that bad day from turning into a tragic story on the streets. As the region’s coordinator for shelters, housing organizations and programs, ARCH executive Director Anne Cooper sees opportunities to improve throughout the region.
For the homeless, housing assistance is divided into several categories that feature different timelines and resources:
- Permanent Supportive Housing – Long-term stays (often through rental assistance) with education and life-skill opportunities for those with disabilities.
- Transitional Housing – Temporary housing that focuses on providing stability through education, counseling and life-skill development. Designed to be a stepping stone to other housing.
- Rapid Re-Housing – Short/medium-term (Up to 24 months) housing with support services and rental assistance for those in the most immediate need.
Cooper explained that resources are short for transitional housing more than any other. In a 2021 count of available beds, ARCH reported 64 transitional beds across their entire eight-county coverage area, 18 of which were reserved for veterans. Out of the 976 beds available region-wide, transitional housing only made up 6.6%.
“What I would like to see is a transitional housing program that is regional, that we can tap into,” Cooper said. “You talk about transportation, reach in with these churches that have vans and buses… Develop a unit of substantial size that we could get these people.
“Because your chronically homeless, the people that are on the street, they need that transitional housing. And it’s so difficult.”
Cooper said transitional housing rents and support staff can be prohibitively expensive for many organizations, but the high success rate of those who are able to enter the program makes it worth it.
“There is no regional facility that I know of that could take on a task like this,” Cooper said. “Certainly you have empty buildings that are sitting around.”
One potential solution, Cooper said, is the introduction of more incentives for landlords to take in clients referred by ARCH. This could come in the form of direct cash incentives, lease agreements that place ARCH on the hook for unit damages rather than the tenant, or other financial relief efforts. The short-term nature of the work, however, affects how many landlords are willing to sign on.
For rural areas, Cooper said a lack of transportation options can severely limit the ability of individuals to recover from homelessness. When jobs and beds are locked behind a drive on the interstate, Cooper said the cost to work can skyrocket.
“That is truly one of the biggest barriers that we have,” Cooper said. “Is that number one: employment in the area, and then number two: how do you get to it?”
On Greyhound’s website, a one-way trip to Bristol from Johnson City averages around $23 and starts at 2 a.m., hardly commuter hours. Each of the Tri-Cities has its own job access program through local transit systems, but these are subject to application and acceptance. NET Trans, Northeast Tennessee’s Public Transit System, serves around 600 passengers per day according to its website but requires you to book a day in advance.
Cooper said she’s seen clients with a job interview that could change their life, but because there was no way to get there in time, they had to turn to ARCH.
“There’s probably a lot of employment out in North Roan, and even out into the counties, into the Boone’s Creek area,” Cooper said. “But how do you get there?”
Cooper’s office is hopeful that local faith-based organizations might get involved with transportation, especially those that have buses and vans.
The first hurdle to getting homelessness assistance is proving that you’re homeless in the first place, Cooper explained, and being made aware that resources are out there. Headcounts of the homeless in 2021 were severely limited by COVID-19, so getting an accurate picture of the region’s population is crucial.
One person working to address this is Kingsport’s homeless outreach worker Erin Gray, a licensed social worker that operates alongside the Kingsport Police Department (KPD).
“What they’re providing is what every person who walks in this door, if they want assistance and they’re homeless, they need that proof of homelessness, that letter,” Cooper said. “We have to have that, we’ve got to have that verification of homelessness and she’s providing that.”
Workers in the program are not sworn law enforcement officers but often go out with officers to find homeless populations and connect them with ARCH and local resources. With proof of homelessness provided by a municipal official, Cooper said gaps in Kingsport’s support network are starting to close.
“That saves days,” Cooper added. “Sometimes a week.”
ARCH staff now work closely with the KPD’s Homeless Outreach Team (HOT), which is made up of officers, EMS workers and social workers to better address the needs of the city’s homeless as they arise. Cooper said she hopes to see something similar implemented in every city and county, because their cooperation has made ARCH’s job much easier.
“It’s working wonderfully,” Cooper said. “I really give them credit, it does work well.”
While the funds providing for much of the homeless work in the region is federal, Cooper said there is no one entity that you can ask to get more involved in the Tri-Cities. Relief efforts come from the bottom up, with local organizations having to ask for the funds to cover what they’re already trying to do.
ARCH’s role as a coordinator is the closest there is to a central authority on homelessness within the region, but no such entity exists on the brick-and-mortar housing front. Cooper said she’d like to see an organization take up that mantle and open a facility that houses the homeless from across the entire region.
“That’s what I would love to see, I think it would be a huge benefit and we could work it out that we transport from out of the cities into this centrally located location somewhere in the county,” Cooper said. “It’s going to take a lot of coordination and agreement.”
That drive to centralize stems from a small pool of funding that individual organizations are forced to compete over to operate. At the end of the grant-writing season, Cooper said most areas are stretched too thin to change much.
“Any one city, Johnson City, Kingsport, Bristol, does not have the resources to do this,” Cooper said. “I really feel like we need to go out into the community and get our faith-based partners. This is a community issue.”
Rather than rely on HUD funds, Cooper believes the use of local support could make all the difference.
“It’s going to take a huge regional effort, and that’s why I really feel like if we’re going to do this that we really need to tap into non-federal resources and get with our partners like Munsey Church and State Street Church over in Bristol, because there is interest out there.”