After spending eight and a half years in prison for forging checks, Ronnie returned to society without the help of a stable support system, having lost close family members and loved ones.
“It was my first time in jail,” Ronnie said. “It was a shock there. Going through all that and then that. And in there respect is a big thing, and here you don’t see it at all.”
Ronnie has been homeless since November and lives his life “minute by minute”.
The Salvation Army is left with white flag days – freezing nights when the shelter opens its doors to everyone. On nights when he can’t find shelter, Ronnie sleeps in places like the downtown breezeway.
“I sleep there until I’m woken up by law enforcement,” he said. “They tell me to move.”
Coordinated by the Appalachian Regional Coalition on Homelessness, local service providers recently conducted a “spot” count of the homeless population in the eight-county region of northeast Tennessee.
The event is a nationwide census of homeless people that the US Department of Housing and Urban Development requires local service organizations to conduct on an annual basis. The count takes place each year over a single 24-hour period at the end of January.
According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, these annual tallies help agencies better plan homeless service delivery while tracking their progress in addressing the issue.
On Thursday, students and faculty involved in health sciences at East Tennessee State University interviewed homeless people near the Munsey Memorial United Methodist Church and the Johnson City Public Library, noting information about clipboard.
Volunteers collected demographic information, veteran status and whether respondents had a history of chronic illness or substance abuse.
In 2021, the point count identified 310 homeless people in northeast Tennessee. Most were in Sullivan County (165) or Washington County (102). In addition, 169 people had spent one night in emergency shelter, 30 were in transitional housing and 111 had no shelter.
Doug Murray, outreach coordinator for ARCH’s homelessness programs, said the count also allows service providers to track the number of beds available.
“It gives you kind of a snapshot of whether you’re providing services to people in need,” he said.
The tally only includes people living on the streets over a specified period of time, said Jean Hemphill, an associate professor at the ETSU College of Nursing, so it may miss people living in unstable housing or doubling up with a friend or a member of the family.
“That gives you the number of people who might need emergency services during the coldest months of the year,” Hemphill said.
Murray said the count involves the mobilization of volunteers in the eight county area. This year it included many people from ETSU.
Madeline Standbridge, a second-year medical student at ETSU Quillen College of Medicine, was one of those volunteers. She also previously participated in a one-time count in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where she was stationed at an emergency shelter with a regular intake of about 500 people a night.
Personally, Standbridge said, she is passionate about providing access to medical services for vulnerable people like those who are homeless.
“There are so many hurdles in the healthcare system and just getting resources in general,” Standbridge said, an issue that can be heightened in more rural areas. “It’s just a great way to volunteer and get involved in the community.”