KINGSPORT, Tenn. (WJHL) — Nonprofit charity Hunger First has been sheltering the homeless under its roof this winter. But authorities from the Kingsport Fire and Police departments have issued the organization a citation and general nuisance ticket.
Michael Gillis, director of Hunger First, told News Channel 11 he was ordered to close the shelter by January 13th.
Gillis said up to 28 homeless people have slept there at night. Hunger First workers said many of the people staying there are elderly, disabled, or suffer from mental illness – and may not have another place to go.
“The women in there, that are senior citizens, I’ve got one lady that can barely walk,” Gillis said.
Hunger First has served Kingsport since 1996, offering a food pantry and clothing closet to those in need. The organization began allowing the homeless to warm themselves in the building in September. Gillis said the building was only supposed to be a temporary day shelter, but it eventually became a place for dozens of people to sleep at night.
“Because it’s the humanitarian thing to do. It’s the right thing to do. It’s the moral thing to do,” said Gillis. “Am I going to put these people back out on the street? Even in 30 degree weather?”
Gillis said that on December 31, police officers, a fire marshal, and a building inspector visited Hunger First. He was issued a citation – being told the lack of sprinklers meant the building was not up to fire code.
Barry Brickey, a spokesperson for the Kingsport Fire Department, said the KFD has visited Hunger First three times since 2016 over fire hazard concerns. Hunger First was issued a citation during the December 31st visit due to a lack of sprinklers. Brickey also said Hunger First is not classified as a residential occupancy, which would allow people to sleep there.
Kingsport police also issued Gillis a general nuisance ticket on December 31st. Gillis said it was for allowing people to sleep on the front porch of Hunger First.
News Channel 11 reached out to the Kingsport Police Department to confirm the specific reason the nuisance ticket was issued. A spokesperson said further details on the ticket were not immediately available.
The citation and nuisance ticket order Gillis to appear in court on January 13th, the same day he was told the shelter must shut down.
“I understand, I know about zones, I understand ordinances,” said Gillis. “[But the] majority of these people have mental illnesses. If there were places for them to go, they’d be there.”
News Channel 11 reached out to the City of Kingsport on Friday to confirm why the citation and ticket were issued. A spokesperson for the City said in a message: “The tickets and citations revolve around health and safety concerns.”
Hunger First workers fear for the safety of those they’ve been sheltering.
“Back to the streets, alleyways, boxes, tents in the woods,” said Dustin Rollins, a Hunger First volunteer who serves as a monitor for the temporary shelter. “I mean, this right here is their safe haven. It’s a place for them to lay at night and they don’t have to worry about cold temperatures.”
Shades of Grace United Methodist Church in Kingsport is able to shelter the homeless when temperatures drop below 20 degrees at night. Shades of Grace Pastor Will Shewey said their status as a church permits them to do so.
Losing Hunger First’s shelter could worsen Kingsport’s homeless situation, according to Shewey.
“If the place is shut down, [the homeless are] going to be scattered all over, they’re going to be downtown. To me, it’s just going to multiply the problem,” he said.
Shewey said the Hunger First shelter served people who might not be permitted to stay at the Salvation Army or other shelters.
“We all know there is the Salvation Army available to folks in the Kingsport area,” Shewey said. “However, there are many people who are restricted. For example, those who are convicted sex offenders. There are those with other kinds of extenuating personal circumstances that make them inaccessible or ineligible to stay in a shelter like Salvation Army.”
Gillis said Hunger First’s shelter was only intended to be in place until the weather got warmer. He told News Channel 11 he’s making efforts to get the building up to code.
“There should be some type of emergency issued to where we can actually shelter people,” he said. “There should be something in the ordinances where we can come together as a real community and be able to do such a thing.”