Those who work and live downtown said in a community meeting on Monday night that they’ve noticed a growing number of people on the streets of downtown causing problems — from drug use to urinating and defecating on the sidewalk to throwing beer cans at people. Most merchants agreed these issues have been getting worse within the past few months, and the meeting lingered on speculation as to why it was happening.
Some suggested it was a symptom of the growing opioid epidemic. Others said they’d heard that homeless people have been trickling in from other cities to utilize the services in the area. Most agreed it’s a problem with no easy solution.
Vice Mayor Jenny Brock attended the meeting and suggested the issue lies partly with how homelessness is to be addressed within the community — by using mental health and housing resources to try and prevent as much homelessness as possible.
“I’m just guessing there are other meetings like this going on in other cities of our country talking about this and what to do,” Brock said. “It’s a systemic problem, it’s a public health problem that we are just responding to with bits and pieces of trying to address behavior in our community.
“I think we’re going to have to come up with a carrot-and-stick model here, that we are not enabling people to stay where they are, but we are empowering them to get out of where they are. But then we have this group who are going to be the criminals, the drug dealers, the people who are stealing things from you and we need to be tight on those.”
After outlining the problem, merchants and city officials began brainstorming a solution.
Brock was part of a majority vote last month that will ban “camping” on public property within the city, a law that will go into effect July 1. The ordinance drew criticism and backlash from the community and was aimed at prohibiting people from engaging in activities such as laying down bedding for the purpose of sleeping, storing personal belongings, making a fire, earth breaking or cooking activities in the city’s public places.
Commissioners have said that the ordinance wasn’t drafted and passed as a solution for homelessness, but a stepping stone to get people in the right direction to appropriate resources.
Kat Latham is a co-owner of Johnson City Brewing Company, which has been open for about four years. She attested to every issue brought to attention at the meeting and made several long-term suggestions, but advocated for some short-term solutions as well.
“This is still a safe place to be, this is still a safe place that we want people to come down and be a part of, but we need some changes to be made, we need more police officers on the street,” she said after the meeting.
City Manager Pete Peterson and Police Chief Karl Turner said the police department is working on scheduling more officers to be downtown despite being short 11 officers throughout the entire department. Turner said the community can help by reporting incidents to police as soon as they happen in addition to sharing any photos or videos that would help with investigations and charges.
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