‘We have not done anything irresponsibly’: Haven of Mercy CEO says they won’t evict anyone until city files legal documents

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JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Haven of Mercy Leadership said they have no intentions of evicting anyone seeking shelter until the City of Johnson City orders them to do so through legal paperwork.

Last week, the city ordered the Haven of Mercy ministry to temporarily close its shelter “due to multiple life safety code violations.”

However, until any legal paperwork is filed, Haven of Mercy leadership told News Channel 11 they would not.

“We have not done anything irresponsibly, we have 24-hour surveillance in this place, we have 24-hour personnel patrolling and making sure everybody’s safe. We have a state-of-the-art Fleenor fire prevention system, that you know is the best and we’ve got CO2 detectors throughout the place, we’ve got more fire extinguishers than we need. We’ve done everything we possibly can and always have to make sure the Haven of Mercy is a safe place to be. We’ve been here 45 years, we’ve never had a fire here, and we don’t intend to have one, but this is a railroad job and I’m extremely angry, and thank goodness we serve the Lord because if we didn’t, this could be a very ugly situation, and I don’t want it to be. I want this thing to be resolved, and until I get paperwork in my hand that says that we are to vacate, nothing’s going to be done,” said Haven of Mercy President and Chief Executive Officer Grant Rockley.

The city’s building inspectors conducted inspections in February 2020, Rockley explained. He said the improvements pointed out have been made, however, he said inspectors kept dropping in, finding more wrong.

Last Thursday night, multiple City employees, including those building inspectors, delivered testimony to Johnson City officials on the status of the building, nearly a year later.

“The reason they took so long is because he kept coming in and doing new inspections and finding other stuff that he wanted us to change and much of it applying to commercial buildings and we’re not a commercial building, we’re a residential building. We are a church, we are a sanctuary and we are holy ground here, and there’s no way in the world we would risk anybody’s life, but every time he came in he had something new that he added, and it’s ridiculous,” Rockley said.

According to Rockley, nearly 80 residents would be displaced.

Johnson City Housing Authority Executive Director Richard McClain told News Channel 11’s Bianca Marais that he is coordinating with Appalachian Service Project, Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity, Johnson City Downtown Day Center, Frontier Health – Turning Point, Manna House, Appalachian Regional Coalition on Homelessness and others to develop a plan to address the mental and physical wellbeing of the tenants and provide them temporary housing following the evacuation from the property.

He said the plan is ready for implementation as soon as the Haven of Mercy is forced to close. He explained that an attempt was made last Friday, but they were turned away.

“We put together a really good plan and I had a group of really good people ready to go out there Friday to meet with the residents,” McClain explained.

Moving can be stressful for anyone, he said, but especially if you are worried about becoming completely homeless.

“We’ve identified counselors that would help with the trauma or stress related to a relocation and we’ve got counselors ready to counsel people that might have stress or concerns or worries of having to be relocated so we have counselors available for that, we have a group of folks from ETSU that provide medical services and things like that, available, we have furniture, bedding, supplies, all these things working with the Salvation Army,” he outlined.

McClain said he understands some plans still need to be ironed out, but that his group of organizations is ready to help whenever necessary.

“I think my biggest concern right now is just the mental health of the folks there and the stress that they may be undergoing and I just don’t want anyone to feel stressed out by the relocation because we do have resources, they’re standing by ready to come in, provide counseling services, and I would like to see that start right away, and we were going Friday, but I think we got turned away Friday, but we’re happy to go anytime,” he said.

According to City Attorney Sunny Sandos, legal action is imminent.

“Once an order has been issued by the board, at the normal meetings which are held on the fourth Thursday of the month, in the few business days that follow that meeting, the order will be drafted and prepared, typically by the codes enforcement officer that is assigned to that matter. Once those orders are prepared, typed up, each of the board members comes into City Hall, signs, has their signature notarized, and then the development technician will take those to the court – those get filed through the court with the Register of Deeds. From that point, a certified copy is then mailed to the property owners once the certified copy is received and those have been filed with the court, that’s whenever the legal process has been satisfied,” Sandos told News Channel 11’s Bianca Marais.

She said there really is no way around evacuating the premises at Haven of Mercy.

“The initial step would be to have all the residents vacate the building, then permits are going to have to be pulled by the licensed trades people, and each one of the building code violations is going to have to be satisfied,” Sandos said.

She added that residential buildings with this many building code violations don’t usually have this many residents inhabiting the location.

“These types of orders are issued by the board multiple times per year for different structures throughout the city. This obviously is a unique situation that this is a structure that has a lot of residents in it. Typically you’re going to see this in more of single-family residences, or apartments that are only housing five or six people at a time,” Sandos told News Channel 11’s Bianca Marais.

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