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Editorial - The first step in addressing homelessness

• Sep 30, 2019 at 6:00 PM

With persistent complaints and the number growing, Kingsport is taking a new look at the homeless problem. City Manager Chris McCartt has the right approach in suggesting a first step is taking an inventory of current outreach programs and trying to bring some coordinated direction to them.

There are multiple Kingsport agencies assisting the homeless to the point some local leaders have said it attracts more of them to the city. McCartt envisions a survey of existing services and then bringing those agencies together to facilitate a path forward. It is important that all organizations that give any service to the homeless participate.

Earlier this year, a count was taken over a 24-hour period that found a homeless population of about 135, no doubt an undercount since it was taken in January. Kingsport Police Chief David Quillin told the Board of Mayor and Aldermen that the homeless are a mixed bag that include drug users, folks down on their luck, and persons who prefer to live on the streets as a lifestyle.

Most are found in the downtown area, where residents have reportedly seen them openly use drugs. A resident of Town Park Lofts has reported seeing upwards of 30 homeless, some with shopping carts, in the streets after midnight. She believes the city is making it too comfortable for the homeless. We’ve been told that the homeless share information throughout the region and across the country and, as would be expected, go where they get the most help.

Throughout the nation, communities focus on feeding and sheltering the homeless. An approach that shallow and narrow only perpetuates the problem. Putting people into temporary housing without addressing the root causes of homelessness increases the chances they will become chronically homeless. Give the homeless a place to live and you’ll only have more homeless people looking for free housing.

Programs that work recognize that while the first task is to put the homeless under roof and feed them, it can’t be left at that. Each homeless individual needs to be assessed as to medical needs, and then for marketable skills or lacking any, interest areas that can be a focus for education. The goal should be to get a homeless person off the street and into productive employment to begin a new life.

“We cannot police our way out of this issue. No city can do that,” Quillin said. “There has to be a coordinated, comprehensive and collaborative effort where resources are made available for folks who need and want help.”

Problem is, “We’ve not had a holistic strategy to end homelessness,” said Becca Sutphen, community impact director for the United Way of Greater Kingsport. “We need to come together to find out what the next steps are.”

McCartt sees the city’s Office of Community Development working with the United Way to survey existing services for the homeless, bringing groups that serve the homeless together, and then facilitating a path forward. In addition to forming a coalition, other immediate actions on deck for Kingsport will be the hiring of a social worker to work with the Kingsport Police Department and reviewing the city’s existing code of ordinances to give the city more options.

We can’t think of a better starting point, and every interested party should be welcome to participate in developing a permanent strategy with the objective of helping the homeless help themselves.

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