How much of a problem are ‘those people’ considering downtown’s growth?

Jeff Keeling, Associate Editor

Jeff Keeling, Associate Editor

By Jeff Keeling

It seems the reasons for bringing up downtown Johnson City’s alleged homeless problem may never cease. After an early September meeting with downtown merchants aimed at public safety concerns surrounding the local homeless population, I thought, ‘here we go again.’

Reports on a later meeting and a new downtown association, though, give me hope this time may be different, with less generalized rock-tossing and perhaps more realistic strategies. Since the column below was written, downtown investment has continued to accelerate, and many more people are enjoying our downtown despite the continued presence of down-on-their-luck folks. So I figure the thoughts below, from December 2013, are worth repeating:

Just in time for Christmas, I am confronted with an unwelcome sense of deja vu: our fair city’s recurring consternation with a perceived reputation for “attracting the homeless” appears to be back.

Reminiscent of an effort roughly four years ago, a task force is meeting to determine whether there are ways to “more efficiently serve” the consumers of the abundant supportive services available in Johnson City’s downtown area.

The group includes city staff, concerned citizens, and representatives of some service organizations. I know some of the people involved, admire them, and am generally convinced they have everyone’s best interests at heart.

Nonetheless, the road to draconian policies aimed at “those people” can indeed be paved with good intentions. I am trying to keep an open mind, but the best possible end I see to the current wave of “concern” is that it eventually dies down like the last one did. Frankly, I was a bit surprised to learn the issue is back, considering how much nicer downtown has become since folks were meeting about this “problem” in 2009.

Johnson City probably does have more than its share of social services available. Some homeless, jobless or otherwise down and out people may indeed have heard of this and found their way here anticipating a less harsh environment than some other towns or cities might present. How enabling of us! Where is our tough love?

I realize some people who use these services have “worked the system” and that others have committed crimes in Johnson City. (I’m sure glad those of us in other social and income strata don’t ever work the system or commit crimes – aren’t you?)

I live near downtown, have worked there much of the past two decades, and walk, run and bike there often. Private investment is pouring into downtown and it is great to see.

Tupelo Honey Cafe, Renasant Bank, The Lexington Senior Living, Paxton Place Apartments and Northeast State Community College have invested a combined $20 million­plus downtown in the past couple years. Somehow, downtown’s abundance of social service providers, with all that accompanies them, didn’t impede those folks’ investment.

I don’t oppose enforcing ordinances humanely, keeping downtown safe and working for solutions to deliver social services more efficiently (best of luck with that). I’m not sure we need task forces for that, though. And within most of us, myself included, lurk less altruistic motives for dealing with this so­called problem. We’d really just rather it be out of sight so it can be out of mind.

When we start discussing “solutions” such as finding some new, centralized and preferably out­of­the­way location at which to provide services, and somehow keeping “outsiders” from coming here to access those services, I start thinking about a Galilean peasant girl far from home, a hint of the disreputable about her.




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