citybeat (2008-11)

Moving UpSmoke in a Crowded Theater

City Beat

Volunteer Ministry Center begins construction of its long-planned new facility on North Broadway

Local attorney Judy McCarthy says she isnâ’t unsympathetic to the plight of the cityâ’s homeless; she and her husband Dennis McCarthy, also a lawyer, have in the past provided free legal services to homeless people who have come to their offices on the 100 block of Gay Street.

Still, she canâ’t help but look forward to the day when the 100 blockâ’s Volunteer Ministry Center, the cityâ’s biggest homeless outreach, makes its planned move to a new facility at 511 North Broadway. The new building should be completed by fall, and center officials hope to move in October.

â“Weâ’ve had ongoing problems [with the homeless population], problems that have made it difficult to stay,â” says McCarthy. â“People who come visit our office from West Knoxville, theyâ’re not used to being panhandled, or having to step over human excrement to get in the door.â”

McCarthyâ’s law firm isnâ’t the only 100-block business to have experienced problems, either. She makes the point that those kinds of nuisance issues can be detrimental for an area looking to get in step with the ongoing revitalization of downtown. â“We pay a pretty high cost per square foot here,â” she says. â“Thereâ’s a lot you have to put up with if you own property on this block.â”

Founded in 1987, Volunteer Ministry Center is an interfaith non-profit dedicated to assisting the homeless; it currently occupies roughly 19,000 square feet at Jackson Avenue and Gay. Its programs include the Peopleâ’s Clinic, a walk-in clinic for the indigent on Jackson; the Refuge, an assistance program that VMC CEO Ginny Weatherstone describes as â“sort of a homeless prevention programâ”; and the Jackson Apartments, 16 rent-subsidized units that constitute â“a first step out of homelessnessâ” for VMC clients working toward self-sufficiency.

But the VMC component that is most problematic for other residents of the 100 block is the Day Resource Centerâ"formerly referred to as the Day Shelterâ"where the homeless receive free meals, as well as counseling aimed at helping them break the cycle of poverty. According to Weatherstone, the name change is indicative of VMCâ’s effort to hold clients accountable for working their way off the streets.

â“We donâ’t want to simply provide amenities that keep people comfortable in homelessness,â” says Weatherstone. â“Whereas we used to allow people to receive services for an unlimited period of time, now we hold them responsible.â”

But even with VMC slowly transitioning out of the emergency day-shelter business, the resource center still sees traffic of up to 200 homeless come through its doors every day. And that can lead to problems for other 100 block tenants.

â“Sometimes theyâ’ll just walk in the door, and the only way to keep them out is to lock it. Still, theyâ’ll stand outside and pound on the door, wanting to use the bathroom or the phone, even if youâ’re talking to someone,â“ says McCarthy. She notes that VMC is only open for meals and service during certain hours of the day, and that its clients look to other businesses in search of public rest rooms during those times it is closed.

â“The most offensive problem to me is that some of them will use the bathroom in the doorway,â” she continues. â“Iâ’ve actually had people come up while Iâ’m with a client and urinate on the window. How am I supposed to run a law firm when people have to see that?â”

As proprietor of Nama Sushi Bar on the 100 block and a member of the ministry centerâ’s board, Gregg White appreciates the dilemmas faced by business owners and VMC volunteers alike. â“Iâ’m torn on the subject, because I want the folks who need help to get help.

â“Itâ’s true that we have a high occurrence of certain issues on this block,â” White continues. â“There has been open consumption of alcohol, people doing drugs. Iâ’ve seen people trying to take refuge in the alcoves of some of the buildings I own.

â“But I donâ’t think itâ’s the people who are trying to get off the streets, making legitimate use of the services that are causing the problems. Itâ’s the people screaming, using drugs, vulgar language. Those people usually arenâ’t eligible for services because they arenâ’t behaving themselves.â”

Relief for the 100 block should come soon; though VMC has looked toward a possible move for several years, it appears hopeful that the relocation will take place by the end of 2008. Construction has begun on the 30,000 square-foot North Broadway facility; Weatherstone says the new building will include classrooms, a computer lab, and more offices for more case managers.

The new facility should also spell the end of VMC serving as an emergency day shelter. Weatherstone says plans call for those functionsâ"food and shelter for the walk-in homeless, so to speakâ"to be assumed by another agency. (Weatherstone wasnâ’t at liberty to name the agency.)

â“There have been a few holdups, in the past, with getting the new building going,â” White admits. â“Getting that going is a whole new process for the folks at the ministry center; itâ’s not what they do for a living. But they have been diligent. They are as anxious to move as other people are anxious for them to move.â” â" Mike Gibson

Comedian Ron White illuminates a barely considered limitation of Tennesseeâ’s smoking banâ"with his cigar

Ron â“Tater Saladâ” White, the gruff Texas stand-up comic who starred with Jeff Foxworthy, Bill Engvall, and Larry the Cable Guy on the Blue Collar Comedy Tours and the accompanying Comedy Central televised specials, is known for two things in his act, besides his blunt delivery and black suits: his glass of Johnnie Walker on the rocks and his ever-present cigar. White smoked his cigar (maybe more than one) right through his two sold-out sets at the Tennessee Theatre on Saturday, March 8, according to several people who attended the concerts.

The trouble is that cigars arenâ’t allowed in the Tennessee Theatre since last yearâ’s statewide ban on smoking in public places took effect. No exceptions, not even for performers or actors. And thatâ’s a surprise for at least one prominent local promoter.

Some states that have barred smoking in restaurants and barsâ"Minnesota and New York among themâ"let actors in staged theatrical productions smoke on stage, as the play demands, in buildings where smoking is normally prohibited. Ashley Capps, president of AC Entertainment, the company that manages the Tennessee Theatre and promoted Whiteâ’s concerts, says he assumed Tennesseeâ’s smoking law provided the same sort of artistic license.

â“Ron doesnâ’t walk around the building smoking his cigar,â” Capps says. â“Itâ’s like a play or something like that. Thatâ’s my understanding, though I havenâ’t really researched it. In New York, where there are smoking bans all over the place, you still see it onstage occasionally.â”

According to Milissa Reierson, communications director of the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development, however, thereâ’s no such allowance in Tennessee. The state ordinance that passed last summer and went into effect in October only provides exemptions for businesses that donâ’t allow anyone under the age of 21 inside; tobacco manufacturers, wholesalers, and some retailers; businesses with three or fewer employees; nursing home residents; and private clubs.

â“What we would do, if we were to learn of this, is contact [the venue] and go out and visit to make sure they were aware of the law,â” Reierson says. â“Then we would write an advisory letter about the discussion. If there were another complaint, weâ’d follow up with a warning letter. After that weâ’d penalize them. We probably wouldnâ’t penalize the performer; the stage is sort of in charge of that and should know.â”

The penalties range from $50 to $500, depending on the offense. The three violations under the ordinance are failure to have no-smoking signs, failure to prohibit smoking, and knowingly smoking in an area where smoking is prohibited.

â“Itâ’s probably simply because no one thought about it,â” says Capps, who admits he never considered that the law would apply in this situation. â“Iâ’m guilty of being ignorant of that part of the law. I didnâ’t know there wasnâ’t an exception. I would have hated to have turned away Ron White.... He smokes in every single one of his performances or he will not perform.â”

Capps says heâ’ll discuss the issue with the theaterâ’s board of directors to avoid further problems. â" Matthew Everett

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