Roundtable draws large crowd, multiple perspectives on downtown Johnson City issues

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JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Perspectives and experiences varied widely Thursday at a community roundtable addressing homelessness and other issues confronting downtown Johnson City’s public spaces but one thing was clear: people care deeply.

“We’re just trying to keep our businesses open,” said Brandy Miller, who owns a hair styling shop in Downtown Square. “We’re not social workers – we are doing the best we can.”

Miller said those efforts — which she said included multiple business owners feeding, clothing and financially supporting a number of homeless folks during pandemic shutdowns — are threatened, but not by homeless people.

“I want to say that the downtown business owners do not have a problem with homeless people,” Miller said. “We have a problem with illegal activity.

“Our problems are the people that come down in carloads with their sleeping bags and their pillows and they stay and they do meth for four or five days long. And now that the police have stepped up the walking, it has been wonderful. It has been so great.”

In addition to mentioning what she said was a big recent help from increased foot patrols, Miller lauded the police for the relationships she said they have developed

Speaker after speaker approached the microphone to offer perspectives.

“I feel like they have a great relationship with the homeless. They know their names, they know everything about them and they’re as kind as they can be. Now if they pull a knife or they start fighting then they have to go to jail.”

City Commissioner Aaron Murphy was among the more than 100 attendees.

“There’s an ongoing effort ever since I’ve been in Johnson City to help the homeless community,” Murphy said.

The executive director of Good Samaritan, he said the situation downtown has intensified in recent months.

“What I’ve experienced working downtown every day is different now than it was a year or two ago,” Murphy said. “I see that it’s hard to find a house. I see that our population is increasing. And so we as a community we have to adjust.”

Several speakers were more critical of the police and of some downtown business owners they said had treated homeless people and other folks on the street with disrespect or contempt.

At least one also expressed concerns over the increasing investment downtown, fearing that it could lead to the inner city’s poor and homeless being pushed out or mistreated.

“It’s trendy to live downtown now, it’s trendy to live near those businesses,” said the woman, who lives close to the core of downtown.

“A lot of businesses in this area are bars, and there’s a certain type of clientele that gets attracted, and homeless people tend to get blamed for a lot of problems that happen downtown and it’s not always unhoused people doing it,” she said.

The woman’s primary point, though, centered around a need for empathy.

“I would caution people who have businesses downtown or who come here to remember that the victims of homelessness are homeless people,” she said. “A lot of times they’re looking for a place to be safe, and it can be inconvenient, but at the end of the day they are the victims and I would like to see more empathy for them.”

Given the depth of the challenge there should be plenty of opportunity for the people who attended to show empathy and to put their desires for a better downtown into action.

Assistant City Manager Charlie Stahl said the roundtable exists because leaders want to work with the community to find solutions.

Several speakers lauded the commitment of the city’s police. Others were less generous in their assessments.

“That’s why we’re here and that’s why the Community Roundtable exists,” Stahl said. “We want to find solutions, we want to work with the community — all the community.

“We’re sensitive to the human factor of homelessness. Certainly we don’t have solutions to that today. Certainly we would like to have comprehensive solutions tomorrow.”

Mental health and addiction were as much a topic as lack of housing. Services may be stretched – but they are available, Good Samaritan’s Chauncey Slater said.

“There are many resources that can help with mental health, that can help with drug addiction. The question is, are they willing to take the first step in order to get that assistance?”

Several people noted efforts being made in other cities across the country and suggested the city look to some of those. An East Tennessee State University medical school faculty member spoke of the school’s interest in bringing its resources to bear.

One local woman spoke of her desire to be more involved — and of her empathy not just for the homeless but for business owners like Kimball Sterling, who had recounted his grandsons’ recent witnessing of a couple having sex in bushes below their downtown apartment.

“I love people,” said Julia Sochalski, who serves meals at The Melting Pot downtown and volunteers working with women trying to overcome drug addiction. “I love people that I serve food to and I want to help them, but Mr. Sterling has a business to run. He can’t have his children, his grandchildren watching what they watch.”

The jarring incidents sounded as though they weren’t uncommon, with Sochalski mentioning a firefighter friend’s recent story.

“He answered a call very recently of an overdose that was discovered. A man with needles sticking out of his arm on the downtown streets discovered by a young family.

“I don’t want my children watching that, and you don’t want your children watching that, or your grandchildren, or anybody. You don’t want to watch that. But this problem isn’t going to go away without a lot of work.”

Murphy, the city commissioner, said listening — and realizing Johnson City is “not the same Johnson City that we were 10 years ago” — are key starting points.

“I think it’s time for the city to lean in and listen to the experts,” Murphy said. “Listen to Salvation Army. Listen to ARCH. Listen to Good Samaritan Ministries. Listen to Summit Leadership Foundation. Listen to the Manna House.

“Listen to all these other organizations that have been doing this for years and let’s come together and come up with a solution, because it’s an ongoing matter.”

Murphy said the future of the city was at stake — along with people’s universal dignity.

“We need to grow into who we are becoming so we continue to have good schools,” Murphy said. “You want to walk down the street and feel safe. You want to experience love regardless of your race, your gender or sexual preference or however you were born or whatever someone sees you different as. It’s time for us to love.”

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