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Open dialog needed for helping Johnson City's homeless

Jennie Young, Community Voices • Jun 20, 2018 at 8:30 AM

The recent contentious issue on downtown homelessness in Johnson City certainly dramatizes the difficulty when one must imagine walking in two very different kinds of shoes. Important and legitimate concerns affect both the city’s homeless and the downtown business owners. After weeks of consideration, the commissioners authorized removal and fining of homeless persons who camp or sleep on actual Johnson City public property (sidewalks, parks, public spaces).

A complicated and systemic problem, with causes and effects branching in all directions, homelessness permits no easy solutions. Some commissioners expressed confidence in the current task force associated with Johnson City police and local nonprofits. No one concerned is trying to minimize or paper over daunting numbers of homeless persons who live here or travel through our communities. I know political persuasion influences anyone’s attitude on this. My Democrat heart says a clearing away and penalty fine is a patching over, less than adequate response, and I’m hoping for openness to additional ideas. I know some business operators agree.

During a discussion at the local Democrat Resource Center, about obvious inadequacies in the March national homeless census, Bill and Marie Jones of Kingsport spoke with first-hand knowledge of homelessness in Kingsport, awareness stemming from their congregation’s outreach ministry. I knew right away I wanted to write about that ministry. Learning the measure of their young church’s program, I wished they’d been resourced more for the Johnson City discussion. They call themselves the Shades of Grace congregation. (Hmm, catchy title.)

Other local nonprofit public and private organizations/ministries provide similar homeless services. Some specialize in areas that others can’t, like medical care. All deserve individual shout-outs. Without them our communities would be sorely challenged, beyond presently available resources. For one thing, evident to almost anyone who looks into this, the official census report doesn’t reflect reality. An overview of the Shades of Grace program makes for a quick scan of homelessness, and the scope of needs, far beyond the basics, which many of us might seldom consider.

Almost exactly four years ago, Pastor Will Shewy, determined to have a service-oriented storefront church, applied to the United Methodist hierarchy through routine channels and was granted a “New Church Start” with $100,000 for finding a place and making preparations. Today, at 313 E. Sullivan St., Kingsport, they’ve become completely self-sustaining. That’s rather amazing as they are a very fluid community, without formal memberships. Many in the congregation are members of other churches and at least half are homeless. It worked like this. They decided upon a simple mission statement, essentially saying “Find a need and find a way to meet it.” They directed their ministry to the needs of the local homeless, set themselves up to coordinate related efforts in the community, and invited other churches to partner. At least 17 local churches give money, food, clothing, plus volunteering time and special resources, such as a bus, when needed. Baptist, Lutheran, Mormon, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal and Catholic, all are helping. Donations come from all over. They also partner with nonprofits like Oasis for Women, two blocks away, for showering and laundry facilities.

They’re open as safe sanctuary at least five days a week, and are on call 24/7, with 40 formal volunteers. Some help with the intricacies of accessing the various social programs, working with Appalachian Regional Coalition on Homeless. State and federal housing organizations often come on site to help. They assist with resumés and access to computers. They help in obtaining picture IDs (almost a thousand already) and getting copies of birth certificates or marriage licenses (including payment of fees). They offer GED classes. They currently have 100 on-site mailboxes providing addresses for receiving Social Security checks and general reconnection with society. They pay medical and pharmacy co-pays and have paid for drug rehab resident facilities. There are free breakfasts and clothing, and help finding shelter. Just as they present themselves — they address needs as they can, and keep finding ways.

Twenty-four/seven on call means police have a place to go with folks from traffic stops or car breakdowns who need temporary food, clothing, and shelter. Hospitals send people with no where to go after having to dismiss them. When the jails release folks with no place to go at 2:30 a.m., they deliver them to Shades of Grace. The facility is warm and the pantry always has milk, eggs, and bread.

Imagine the uncertainty, ever weighing on the homeless person, as to what comes next, and I suspect a heavy sense of loss, of community, of belonging. A weekly event at Shades of Grace so impresses me. I believe it was designed to bridge the “us over here and them over there” chasm so often prevailing at even the best of charities. Every Sunday at 2:30 p.m., the congregation shares a community meal, provided by a partner church, open to anyone. At least half may be homeless. Folks talk, human to human, crossing barriers, beginning or strengthening friendships. Some stay for the 4 o’clock worship service. Some don’t. None of the ministry is about proselytizing, content to let grace be their witness.

What a welcome relief, as well as a challenge, in these times. We have better angels — better models, and we know it.

Jennie Young of Elizabethton is a retired language arts teacher.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The opinions expressed by all Community Voices columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of the Johnson City Press.

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