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No fine for Hunger First as it comes into compliance with city

Matthew Lane • Jan 14, 2020 at 8:58 AM

KINGSPORT — Hunger First will no longer be letting homeless people sleep overnight on the property, but the Myrtle Street location will be able to serve as a warming station when temperatures get too cold.

This was essentially the outcome from a Monday afternoon court hearing between the city of Kingsport and Michael Gillis, the director of Hunger First, over two citations issued back in December.

On New Year’s Eve, Kingsport issued two citations against Gillis, one for having items stored on the porch area of the building and a second, zoning violation for having folks spending the night inside.

The problem with having people spend the night in the building, according to several city officials, is the property is zoned for business and not residential. Officials also say it’s a safety issue given the building does not have a sprinkler system.

COURT HEARING

During Monday’s hearing in city court, city officials testified that Gillis had removed the items from the porch area, thus coming into compliance with city code. That citation was dismissed.

Ken Weems, the planning director for the city, testified on Monday he had spoken with Gillis twice about the process of changing the zoning of the Hunger First location from business to residential. It’s a process that would take about three to four months to complete.

Gilis, who appeared without legal counsel, gave his side of the story during Monday’s hearing, telling Judge Curt Rose his intent was not to break any laws.

“I’m not doing this on a whim. I’m trying to serve a purpose, and I’m ready to take it to the next level,” Gillis said on his plans to eventually make the Hunger First location a day center. Gillis further explained that the people he serves everyday are special cases, with drug and mental issues, that other nonprofits simply aren’t equipped to deal with.

And since temperatures were below 30 degrees on New Year’s Eve, Gillis said he felt the need to let those folks spend the night.

“They had nowhere to go and would have had to go back to the street,” Gillis said. “They just needed a place to go.”

THE JUDGE’S RULING

Rose admitted Gillis was in a tough spot, weighing his good intentions against the laws of the city. In the end, Rose ruled for Gillis to return on March 9 for an update on the situation.

“If you keep the building as a warming place ... there will be no fine since you’re trying to come into compliance,” Rose said. “I appreciate you trying to do the right thing.”

After the hearing, Gillis said he feels better about the whole situation since the judge heard his side of the story.

“I believe the entire religious, business and residential community should feel the need to step up. It’s our responsibility as a whole,” Gillis said.

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