By Jeff Keeling
Jennifer Whitehead knows better than to suggest building a new, grant-funded Downtown Day Center anywhere but on the property where the current building sits. When Whitehead first started working with Johnson City’s homeless population 10 years ago, the establishment of the Downtown Day Center on West Fairview Avenue was a sort of olive branch.
Less than half a year before Whitehead started her work at the Day Center, East Tennessee State University’s nurse-managed Downtown Clinic had moved about a half-mile east to East Myrtle Street as it continued to grow.
“None of the homeless would go there,” Whitehead said. “The place they had moved was much nicer, kind of a mainstream-looking doctor’s office, but they didn’t like change.”
That was in October 2005. Many of the homeless people who had used the clinic for health care (it also served migrants and other uninsured in the early years) were continuing to hang around the old, 2,000-square-foot building that Mountain States Health Alliance had leased to ETSU for $1 a year. Eventually, Whitehead said, “somebody started going by there six hours a week, keeping in contact in hopes of eventually coaxing the guys over there.”
That effort had mixed results, but what it led to was a recognition that serving some of Johnson City’s chronically homeless and “precariously housed” people might be done more effectively by meeting them where they were. The result was the Day Center’s establishment, which has led to a growing array of services for ever-larger numbers – the center, with Whitehead and two other full-time staff, saw 1,100 different people last year and has, “probably a group of about 230 that we see constantly,” Whitehead said. All told, they manage to see about 60 people a day in a space built for half that.
In late September, ETSU learned it would receive a $999,993 grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration, the federal agency that provides much of the funding for the downtown clinic’s successor, the Johnson City Community Health Center. The funds will allow for replacement – on site – of the existing Day Center. Work should begin sometime next year and be complete in late 2017.
A new, 4,365-square-foot building should allow for continued expansion of services, provided funding can be procured, for a population that Whitehead said is a little like a family. It’s a family that many ETSU nursing, social work and other students have encountered during clinicals and practica.
“We’ve had many students come in scared to death, but by the end of it they don’t want to leave,” Whitehead said. “They just love working with this population.”
The same goes for her and her full-time co-workers, case manager Toria Gilewala and clerk Sarah Fine. They joined Whitehead after she had flown solo from 2006 until about 2012. Most of their budget is provided by a PATH (Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness) grant, federal money overseen by the state.
Along with medical and mental health clinicians who come in Tuesdays and Thursdays, and a counselor who comes Wednesdays, the group serves homeless and what Whitehead calls “precariously housed” folks.
“We try to get as many services under one roof as possible,” Whitehead said. “They’re very comfortable here, and they come and get holistic care. We do their medical, their mental health and help with some of their social needs.”
They’ve done it despite lots and lots of problems in the current facility. It houses a warren of tiny offices and clinic rooms, two washing machines that can only be used in the morning so the one shower can be used in the afternoons due to plumbing issues, and a cramped day room where folks hang out to rest, watch TV and have snacks and coffee. The new digs will have six washer/dryer combos and three showers – all of which will be able to be used throughout the day.
Whitehead believes the center has been a benefit to the rest of downtown as revitalization has taken off.
“We give them a place to go during the day so that they’re not hanging out on the sidewalks, in the breezeway or down at the transit,” Whitehead said. “If we start to see that we feel like they’re decomping (exhibiting signs of worsening mental health), then we take care of that.”
A good number of clients take antipsychotics, and if they get their shots at the center, Whitehead said, “we keep a calendar of when those are due. If they don’t come on that day, we’ll go and find them. That consistency is crucial.”
The regular interaction with the Day Center helps many of its clients stay out of Woodridge Psychiatric Hospital, or local jails, which saves taxpayers a lot of money, Whitehead added.
She said she hopes the new building, which will allow the clinic to be open five days a week instead of two, will help ETSU serve people who often have no one else.
“One year we had 14 guys that died and we did six funerals, because they just burnt those bridges with their families.
“When I have my tough days, I always think about, ‘if we weren’t here, who would make sure that they’re eating? Who would make sure they’re taking care of their meds? Who would just care that their life matters and take up for them when they have no voice?’ That’s what I love most about this.”
While she hopes funding can be procured for an additional employee who can liaison with downtown businesses and also reach out to people who need the center’s services, Whitehead right now is just happy for her regulars. They include people like “user volunteer” Winferd Nettro, 76, who gets his health care here and in return keeps the place as spic and span as a run-down building can be.
“I just feel like our guys deserve a nicer place to be. We appreciate that Mountain States has basically given us this building for free, we have so many memories here and it’s been really good to us, but I just feel now it’s time for the next phase. We’ve gotten this far on so little – what can we do now?”