Regional coalition on homelessness resurrected to help needy

By Julie Fann
Star Staff
JOHNSON CITY -- A regional coalition originally formed in 1997 to fight homelessness has reorganized in an effort to find out more about a continuing problem most of us choose to ignore. Board members for the Appalachian Regional Coalition on Homelessness held a press conference Wednesday to present data and discuss possible solutions.
"Basically, what we're trying to do is to build a continuum of care. In this region, though we have a decent continuum of care, the problem is it's really not linked," said Bob Merritt, RN case manager for the Johnson City Downtown Clinic which provides health care to many homeless individuals.
Merritt presented data from the first comprehensive study conducted on homelessness in eight northeast Tennessee counties which was gathered in April of this year. According to Merritt, 603 people in the region meet the federal definition of homeless.
"Who is homeless? - an individual in a dwelling not fit for human habitation such as a car, such as under a bush or bridge, or in an emergency shelter. Our numbers do not include the number of couch homeless, those staying with friends who have no control of their dwelling at all, which could range anywhere from 500 to 5,000 people in this region," Merritt said.
While 603 people in eight counties are homeless, only 408 emergency shelter beds are available to those people, according to Merritt. Transitional housing, or assistance that moves homeless individuals out of emergency shelters by helping them re-learn how to join society, provides only 21 beds in the entire region. And permanent supportive housing for the more than 25 percent who suffer from mental illness is completely unavailable.
"Most emergency shelters are just that - emergency shelters. They're set up so someone comes in ranging from three to seven days in a 90 day period, and unfortunately, I know I couldn't ... get my life together in seven days ... and I would like to think I'm somewhat of an intelligent person, and I've never been diagnosed with a mental illness, and, unfortunately, a lot of our homeless population has," Merritt said.
The eight counties included in the study were Washington, Sullivan, Carter, Unicoi, Hawkins, Greene, Hancock and Johnson counties.
Another comprehensive study conducted in September of this year revealed similar numbers in the eight county region as the one performed in April, according to Merritt. One board member said he believes county officials are often reluctant to reveal the number of homeless individuals because they believe it will reflect poorly on the quality and quantity of industry.
"If you talk to officials they said they had no homeless and yet they were within three blocks of their office; sometimes this is just a denial thing because it reflects upon some of the other things that they don't want to reflect on industry; the other thing is that we noticed how many counties would offer bus tickets for homeless to drop them off in another county," the board member said.
Approximately 46 Carter County residents are homeless, according to data Merritt obtained during the study. Many of those individuals live in tents near Wilbur Dam, he said, and also in an area of downtown Elizabethton.
Merritt said the goal of ARCH is to maximize the effectiveness of emergency shelter resources by ending the cycle of homelessness through development of adequate transitional and permanent housing resources.
ARCH members have completed a Continuum of Care grant application to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for over $1.1 million. Accessing the funding requires a local match of 25 percent and development of an HMIS (Homelessness Management Information System) used to track homeless persons.
Spearheaded by Ron Scalf, former Black Bottom resident and area businessman, the ARCH board consists of 16 representatives from various agencies and professions. ARCH participants include more than 100 individuals representing more than 60 organizations throughout the region.
Following the presentation of data, Marne Brobeck, of the Creative Energy group, presented posters and taped commercials aimed at increasing the awareness of homelessness and the efforts of ARCH to end it.