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SP Community communicates concern for uncertain homeless shelter

Posted on Thursday, February 1, 2024 at 11:56 am


The community of South Pittsburg came together at the January 9, mayor and commissioner city meeting to express concerns regarding a proposed homeless shelter by the Calvary Baptist Church, of which church representative Roy Cheeves, responded to concerns and received several suggestions from residents and the board.

On the agenda for the citizen comments section of the meeting were Jennifer Martel, Janet Henderson, and Jennifer Thompson (although Thompson was absent for the proceedings). Their comments, along with those from the public, raised numerous questions and concerns, including issues related to the strain on resources and the potential for accidents and injuries when people attempt to cross streets inappropriately.

The concerns raised regarding the overstretched resources and current needs of mental health facilities which are currently facing challenges such as overwork, long wait times, and insufficient supply. The audience members emphasized that introducing another form of assistance would not effectively address the root of the problem. Other resources of concern were raised about the scarcity of resources in food banks and the job market, creating difficulties and shortages even for existing residents. The community expressed fears about the potential impact of these challenges.

Several individuals voiced their frustrations that the announcement was made without providing solid information or engaging in direct communication with the public. Many stated their belief that such an announcement should be accompanied by a carefully thought-out plan with comprehensive answers. Without this the public would supply their own, referencing the lengthy posts and discussions on social media surrounding the topic.

A number of citizens raised questions regarding the extent of the problem, seeking clarification on the necessity of a shelter, as some were skeptical about the existence of a substantial need. In response, individuals who advocated for the shelter highlighted the living conditions of those in need, including instances of individuals living in cars and tents. They aimed to illustrate a substantiated need for a shelter in the community. Blessed Inc. owner, Lyndi Silver showed her support validating the need in the community and describing their work as well as their limitations.

There were also inquiries about the geographical scope of the shelter, with concerns raised about individuals from Nashville and Knoxville being present in Marion County.  Cheeves clarified that the shelter’s limitation would be strictly for Marion County residents, addressing concerns about potential strain on resources and ensuring that the assistance provided is exclusively directed to those within the local community.

Roy Cheeves spoke at the city meeting to communicate his plans but admitted he did not have all the answers. He outlined his primary goals and plans to move forward in developing the shelter to benefit the community and support those in need. His primary goals are to help get people off the streets and to create a safe haven not a walk-in shelter. As referenced in the proposal, they will require applications and agreeing to a list of terms and conditions determined by the church.

Cheeves emphasized safety was their priority and highlighted that they are working on a list of rules and terms to follow. These range from mandatory drug tests for entry and to stay, a willingness to work, a set curfew, and more. Though a list was provided to the board, a full legal obligation and comprehensive list is still in the works.

“A lot of people that need a hand up, not a hand out, but a hand up.” Cheeves stated. Though the church leader understands some people may disagree, he is willing to hear opposing opinions and work to best support the community. Furthermore, he expressed his belief an undertaking such as this has never been done in Marion County, “but there is a need for it.”

Cheeves explained his plans to raise the money through church funding for two buildings, though concerned citizens advised this approach might exacerbate problems rather than resolve them. Many individuals expressed the opinion that this could lead to unforeseen complications that would only compound. Moreover, citizens relayed that the churches in Marion County are already facing financial challenges and may not have the capacity to contribute to such an initiative.

Several individuals, including Commissioner Allison Buchanan and Vice Mayor Matt Stone, voiced concerns and offered suggestions for the church moving forward.

Commissioner Buchanan requested the qualifications and screening process of the individuals entering the buildings. Cheeves explained that passing a drug test would be a prerequisite and failing it would result in denied entry. Additionally, she questioned the plan after the duration of stay, and Cheeves confirmed the intention is to assist individuals to find permanent residency. Although an exact timeline has not been established, they anticipate limiting stays to one to two weeks to avoid complications related to tenancy and lease requirements. Commissioner Buchanan also expressed concern that this initiative could attract an excess of people to the area. Whether securing a temporary stay or being denied, once they leave the shelter, they are left to wander the city without a clear plan. Furthermore, she solidified and reaffirmed her concerns for thorough consideration and planning, underscoring that many aspects required further discussion.

Commissioner Stone suggested the church could consider an online application. He advised that this process would alleviate the concerns of townspeople that 100 or more individuals would be lined up to apply for entry. Additionally, he recommended solidifying plans for after the expiration of each applicant’s stay, echoing the concerns raised by Commissioner Buchanan and several other concerned citizens who shared similar worries about the potential consequences.

City Attorney William Gouger Jr. dispelled misconceptions and offered suggestions for the church. First, Attorney Gouger sought clarification regarding individuals that failed to meet the entry requirements. Cheeves confirmed that, in such cases, those individuals would be left to stay on the streets. Following this, Attorney Gouger discussed next steps for proceedings and requirements that Cheeves and his team would need to meet.

A highly detailed site plan addressing multiple facets impacting the city and community. Examples include the facility to be built, location, etc. This plan must go through the planning commission and be approved before proceeding. Finally, Attorney Gouger advised that although zoning would not prevent the shelter, other city ordinances and laws had to be followed as well. Without adhering, the shelter could proceed. Examples included building codes, site plan requirements, and other related city regulations.

Ron Evans, deputy sheriff of 30 years, shared his insights during the meeting. He described his work with social workers, medical field professionals, the homeless and service as a homeless liaison officer. Evans expressed his deep commitment to helping people such that he became a sheriff to do so. However, as he recounted, he watched as the homeless population overtook his town in California following the construction of a homeless shelter without a clear plan in place.

Within four years the population rose to nearly 6,000, tripling the original population as a result. He further exemplified that a park was converted into a homeless camp. Afterward, a once unique and beautiful area was overrun by homeless people and parents could not comfortably take their children for fear of intimidation, exposure to needles or other drug paraphernalia, and risk of assault. Evans expressed that a detailed plan for control was vital and pointed to other places like Nashville and Chattanooga, cautioning that without a strategic approach, “they will run you over,” he stated solemnly.

For the latest information and future notifications, refer to upcoming publications as information becomes available.

The Marion Tribune – January 25, 2024