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The need remains in downtown Johnson City

Robert Houk • Updated Sep 24, 2019 at 8:45 PM

Even if residents of the John Sevier Center are able to move to better housing elsewhere, there are still needs that must be adressed in the downtown area.

“When you move the already housed poor out, you are still going to have the homeless poor,” said Patty Muse, associate pastor of neighboring Munsey Memorial United Methodist Church. “We are so glad John Sevier residents will have housing opportunities, but there are many who don’t.”

Aaron Murphy, the CEO and executive director of Good Samaritan Ministries at 100 N. Roan St., said the services provided by his organization are needed by the homeless who come to downtown Johnson City.

“People come because they know their lives can be changed,” Murphy said.

Good Samaritan offers a number of resources for the homeless, including food, clothing showers for men and life coaching.

“This is a hand-up for people in need,” Murphy said. “We try to take care of our neighbors, and people are grateful for the assistance.”

He said the goal of Good Samaritan is to “transition people” from homelessness to housing and from unemployment to employment.

“That’s how we measure success,” Murphy said. “We will always have the homeless, but let’s position them for success.”

A Fine Line

Stacy Larsen, executive director of The River, sees the cost of homelessness every day at the ministry for women she operates at 125 W. Main St. The River was founded by the congregation of First Presbyterian Church in 2004 inside a former furniture store just a few steps away from the historic downtown church.

Larsen said the ministry, which will mark its 15th year of operation in October, provides laundry services, clean showers and “a safe place for women” to come during the daytime. Many who use the ministry’s services are homeless, or just one paycheck from being without one.

“Our mission all along has been to create a space where women can come together to help themselves,” Larsen said. “We are not duplicating any services.”

She said The River is seeing 900 visits a month, with half that number being women who identify themselves as homeless. The ministry also provides a diaper subsidy program that distributes nearly 6,000 diapers a month. 

The River also works with a number of other ministries and social agencies to help serve women in downtown Johnson City. Larsen said it’s important to stress the services her ministry provide are not designed to enable or promote chronic homelessness.

“It’s a fine line that we walk,” Larsen said. “In the past year, the downtown has been inundated with drugs, and there are a lot of users. It’s a dangerous world, and we are trying to help people.”

With the help of 35 volunteers, Larsen said The River is aiding women to “get clean and wash their clothes.”

“We are a huge family,” Larsen said. The women support each other. It’s a really great thing to see.”

Moral Support

Lea Ann has been coming to The River for nearly four years. She has been homeless for most of that time — at one point living in a child’s playhouse in a friend’s back yard.

She currently lives in a tent outside of Johnson City to avoid running afoul of the city’s strict camping ordinance. She gets to The River daily by bus, or by riding a bicycle. Over the years, she has has had nearly half-a-dozen bicycles stolen or damaged by friends who she let borrow them.

Just recently, she said, someone stole her dog while she was away from the campsite.

“I moved here to help a friend with her kids,” Lea Ann said. “Her old man got mad at me and threw me out of the house.”

Lea Ann said the The River is a “safe place” to stay during the day. It’s where she showers and cleans her clothes.

“There’s too many crazy people out on the streets,” she said.

Wende has also been a regular at The River for a number of years. The Sullivan County native said she is currently on “couch status,” meaning she is sleeping on a friend’s sofa.

She lived in her car for a while until she could no longer afford its upkeep.

Wende said The River has been a place for “moral support and guidance” after losing her job as a construction site manager and becoming homeless nearly a decade ago. 

“When I first heard people say they were going to The River to do laundry, I thought they were literally going to a river to wash clothes,” Wende said.

She said The River has been a place where she could help sort out her life and work on finding a job and a new place to live.

“This has added so much to my life,” Wende said. “It’s been a good thing to come here every day and see a smile, and know there are people who are getting the help they need.”

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