Tammy’s story — 'People just don’t know what we go through'

Matthew Lane • Dec 31, 2018 at 10:20 AM

KINGSPORT — Tammy Riley hails from Flint, Michigan, but she’s lived in Kingsport for 27 years.

The 45-year-old has children and a mother in the area, a number of good friends who stay in regular contact and a pastor who helps her out most every day.

That’s because Tammy is homeless and has been for the past nine years. She wanders the streets of Kingsport and keeps mostly to herself. She suffers from COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and recently faced a bout with pneumonia. I found her at Shades of Grace on Sullivan Street recently and talked to her about her situation, how she became homeless and what the future holds for her.

“I was running from my abusive husband,” she said. “I got tired of the physical and mental abuse he gave me, so either I was going to kill him or he kills me. My third option was to get up and go, so I left him.”

Although she has relatives nearby, Tammy said she “just can’t stay with them.” Her family lives in public housing, they have too many kids, and she doesn’t want to be “too much of a burden.” She has three sons who are wards of the state and a mother who lives in Kingsport. Her mother, who recently got out of the hospital, has some serious medical issues, Tammy said.

To say the last nine years have been hard would be an understatement. Being homeless is not a condition you want to experience, she said.

“Stay with your family if you have to. It’s too hard,” Tammy said. “I’ve had two or three kids come up and ask me, ‘Is it fun being homeless?’ I said, ‘No. It’s not fun at all.’ ”

The word on the street is that Kingsport plans to do something about homeless people downtown, Tammy said. Johnson City officials recently passed an ordinance to outlaw camping in their downtown area — essentially a measuring targeting the homeless. Kingsport has not done so, nor have city leaders publicly talked about taking a similar step.

Sometimes business owners hassle Tammy and her friends. One lady took Tammy and a friend inside a downtown establishment for a cup of coffee and the owner gave them a dirty look. Another friend, who has bone cancer, came in out of the cold and was told he had to leave.

“Word has gotten out that if you’re homeless (in Kingsport), they’re going to start rustling you. I hope it doesn’t come to that point,” she said.

Homelessness is a daily struggle for survival, Tammy said. Not only do you have to figure out where your next meal is coming from, but you have to find a place for the night where you will be safe — from both the elements and from those who prey on the homeless.

In other parts of the country, the danger is much more severe. Nashville is one of the worst, Tammy said. A homeless woman was set on fire while sitting on a bench. Locally, she said, homeless people constantly have to worry about things being stolen from their campsites.

“They leave their campsite for a day and their blankets will be gone,” said Will Shewey, pastor of Shades of Grace.

But things could be changing for the better for Tammy. By the end of January, she should get the results of her application for disability, which she said would allow her to get off the streets. If that falls through, she plans to try to get a job and stay in Kingsport. She simply has too many friends to go elsewhere.

“People just don’t know what we go through. I have to live with this every day,” Tammy said. “How have I survived? God. That’s the only way I can survive.”

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