New Johnson City homeless outreach coordinator at work helping the community

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Johnson City’s new homeless outreach coordinator, Lorena Bennett, has gotten straight to work helping the city’s homeless community. Community organizations are excited about the city’s investment.

Johnson City’s homeless population has increased according to the most recent “point-in-time” (PIT) count. The city accounted for 46% of the total population and 51% of the unsheltered in the Tri-Cities. Currently, a new PIT count is being conducted and the results from that count will not be finalized until March.

Throughout Bennett’s almost 17 years of working with the city, she has seen these issues and felt called to help.

“In Code Enforcement, we went to a lot of bad structures and some really bad living conditions and eventually it grew into a whole lot of the homeless issue,” Bennett said. “We got to go in and talk to so many of those individuals and in what ways we could, we would try to assist them. That really led up to this.”

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Since stepping into her role, Bennett has met with people experiencing homelessness and has been able to help six people reconnect with their families or support groups. Some have even been placed into housing.

“I really, really just wanted to hit the ground,” Bennett said. “I wanted to go out and we did.”

<em>Bennett has helped six people who were experiencing homelessness, but she’s running across some obstacles to her helping more. (Photo: WJHL). </em>
Bennett has helped six people who were experiencing homelessness, but she’s running across some obstacles to her helping more. (Photo: WJHL).

She has also learned about the data system which keeps track of individuals, their concerns, and the resources they have been guided to.

Bennett said the police department has been very helpful in connecting her with the homeless community and the resources that directly impact them.

But, she is already running into obstacles like affordable housing and connecting people to available mental health care.

“I’m trying to help two right now. They have full-time jobs. Their income doesn’t support what we offer in a rental,” Bennett said.

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The staff at the Johnson City Salvation Army are excited for Bennett and her position.

“Homelessness is a very complex problem and we need that partnership,” Salvation Army business manager Aaron Scott said. “We need the city stepping up and saying, ‘We’re going to play a role. Agencies are going to play a role.’ We need coordination and alignment to make sure the good work that everybody’s doing is going in the same direction.”

Bennett’s office is in the city hall building, but she said it will move into a space in the old Northeast State Community College building in downtown soon.

Next week, community organizations, along with the city, will meet to decide on a policy for offering shelter during extreme cold weather.

Bennett will be at the next city community round table on Feb. 8 as a guest.

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