By: Kate Coil - Tennessee Municipal League
When city officials began to notice an increase in the local homeless population, the city of Kingsport decided to take a proactive, data-driven approach to solving the issue.
While the city has several organizations that provide services to local homeless citizens, Kingsport officials felt more could be done to address the issue in the community. In the fall, Kingsport City Manager Chris McCartt, and Kingsport Police Chief David Quillin met with the United Way of Greater Kingsport board members to plan a way forward for homelessness outreach in the community.
The result was the creation of a new homelessness coalition to study the issue and the addition of two new positions with the municipality: a homeless liaison partnering with the local United Way chapter and a Kingsport Police Homeless Outreach Worker working with the city’s police department.
Erin Gray, the new police homeless outreach worker with the Kingsport Police Department, will be working as “boots on the ground” to help the coalition gather more accurate statistics on the issue. Gray is a licensed master social worker with more than a decade of experience in the field.
Jonathan Anderson is the homeless liaison serving in partnership with the city of Kingsport and the United Way of Greater Kingsport. Anderson is the founder of Engage Tri-Cities and has 13 years of experience with local organizations in both Tennessee and North Carolina.
Anderson said the city and its partner organizations will be working with the homelessness coalition to find data-driven solutions to the issue. The coalition is comprised of a cross-sector of community members, community leaders, and non-profit organization leaders who will guide the city’s approach.
“We want to determine the makeup of the homeless population,” Anderson said. “We will be using different data from different organizations and agencies. We are looking at crime statistics, the Point-In-Time Count (PIT) numbers, and numbers from the school system. We are trying to gather as much data as possible and have as much of an education for our coalition before we move forward. We are also looking at how our data compares to other areas in our region – and whether or not there is an increase in homelessness and what is causing it.”
The annual PIT Count is conducted each January by the Appalachian Regional Coalition on Homelessness (ARCH) through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. In 2019, this data showed an average of 150 people in Kingsport experiencing homelessness. Of those 150 homeless citizens, 50 individuals typically have a shelter to stay at overnight, 46 are unsheltered, and 38 who are transitionally sheltered or between shelters – meaning two-thirds of the city’s homeless population doesn’t always have a safe place to stay at night.
Anderson said the city’s new homelessness coalition is working to determine both what services are being provided in the community, if homeless individuals are receiving services that best address their specific needs, and what services are still needed. One of the goals for the project is a coordinated entry-system, which will make it easier for homeless individuals to connect with the programs that are right for them.
“That will cut down both on struggles clients are having and streamline processes for local agencies, giving them more time to assist clients,” Anderson said. “We know we have issues with mental services and needs with addiction and recovery services. We are trying to figure out specifically where those gaps are and how to address them moving forward.”
Homelessness is an issue that touches citizens from all walks of life. A report issued in January 2018 found that the state of Tennessee had an average of 6,139 residents experiencing homelessness on any given day. Of those more than 6,000 people, some 1,744 were entire family households, 742 were military veterans, and 485 were young adults between the ages of 18 and 24.
Anderson said it is also important to realize that homelessness isn’t an issue confined to major metro areas.
“Unfortunately there isn’t a one-size fits all solution for homelessness,” he said. “With smaller communities there may be a homelessness problem, but it may not be as visible. In more rural communities, people aren’t as centrally located so it isn’t always something you can see. I think we have always had an issue of homelessness in smaller cities, but it may be a situation where an individual family might help a homeless person or family rather than it being a very visible community issue.”
In addition to the United Way, organizations including the Salvation Army and Family Promise, Frontier Health, Safe House, Hope Haven, Friendship Diner, Kitchen of Hope, Hunger First, Shades of Grace, and nearly 30 other organizations already providing homelessness services to the community will be working with the city as part of the project.
“We have a lot of great organizations in our city, and I want to assist them moving forward as a team,” Anderson said. “We already have a lot of great communication across the board, but we need to think about how we can improve that. We have to help them better track those numbers so we can see what programs are working better than others. We want to see a greater increase of folks getting off the street and into housing. There are no quick fixes to this issue. You have to be slow and steady to see progress over time.”