Commission to consider homeless facility

Published 6:33 pm Tuesday, March 1, 2022

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There are essentially 227 homeless individuals within the county borders. Claiborne Mayor Joe Brooks wants to use two county-owned buildings at the corner of Montgomery and Main in Tazewell as a “warming station” to offer a bit of relief. If approved, the homeless would have somewhere to go each evening until the end of summer.

Tammy Austin, who is the director of the Claiborne County Office on Aging, was scrambling to make deadline for a grant to help some of her senior citizens who are as Brooks characterized “on the cusp of homelessness.” However, time ran out.

Brooks says a substantial portion of the homeless are considered transitional in that at any moment, they could be on the street. Some might be given temporary aid by a family member or friend via nights on a couch. Others might temporarily have the money to pay for a motel room. But, when the money runs out, they are on the street.

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Others might be living inside their vehicles, which could quickly become a moot point if something were to happen to that conveyance.

Brooks said he wanted to come before the commissioners to discuss the pros and cons of providing a place for the homeless population while the two buildings are not being used. He said he would use the commissioners’ input during the discussion to create a resolution for vote next month.

He was asked who would be in charge of overseeing the “warming station.” The county mayor said he had spoken with Sheriff Bob Brooks and felt there would be “a relationship” formed between the county and the Sheriff’s Office to look out for any potential problems.

“When the Sheriff’s Department was located here in the county courthouse, you had homeless people that would ask to sleep on the benches overnight. And in the morning, when the courthouse opened up, those folks were put back outside,” said Brooks, seeming to equate that goodwill experience with the current proposal.

Since the purchase last year, the buildings’ electric and water have been shut off. He said he felt the utility companies would be willing to reboot the services for free due to the nature of the request.

Brooks said there should be no need to have someone officially overseeing the facility since the county sheriff was agreeable to having regular patrols checking on the structures.

Any potential liability concerns would be covered, with possibly a few tweaks, under the existing county liability insurance, he said.

Commissioner Brent Clark said he was concerned about those who might be drug-dependent.

“That’s what it’s going to end up being. Right here, in the middle of town. I see this pattern happening,” said Clark.

Brooks was asked how the city of Tazewell felt about the proposal. He said the county had approached city officials and that the two entities are in discussion about the issue.

Commissioner Sherry McCreary-Neal said she was worried about having nobody there to oversee the facility during the overnight hours.

“That seems like something we need to know before we even think about it. I think it’s something we really need. I like the idea but I just worry about it being unmanned and in the morning, where do they go,” said McCreary-Neal.

Commission chair Mike Campbell questioned how deeply the county would be responsible for essentials like cots, acceptable bathroom facilities and other needs.

“You could create a nightmare, but I know we need something,” said Campbell.

Brooks suggested the county reach out to partner agencies like ETHRA and other nonprofits for help.

Commissioner Whitt Shuford reminded the commission that the two structures were originally purchased to be demolished so that county offices could be constructed.

“I sure would hate to go down this road and then we decide to tear them down in six months. And, we’ve given them false hopes for six months,” said Shuford.

Brooks said the intent in this budget year was to tear down the buildings. However, the budget was “too tight” to appropriate the funds.

He agreed that the project could come up again during discussions for the new fiscal year budget. He did say he could not see where funding would be forthcoming “in the short term” to cover the demolition and construction of new office buildings.

The commissioners will likely revisit this topic during its March 21 meeting.