JOHNSON CITY, TN (WJHL) – The Johnson City Salvation Army is reviewing its emergency shelter policy after the organization turned away a homeless family with a teenage son on a cold night earlier this month, all because of the boy’s age.
Tim Lejeune says on one of the coldest nights of the year, despite the organization’s white flag waving outside the shelter, the Salvation Army turned his family away, because his son is 15 years old.
“They said he’s too old to stay on the women’s side, because of the women running around in their pajamas and they said he’s too young to stay on the men’s side in case some pervert wants to do whatever,” Lejeune said.
Lejeune says his wife, their 15 year-old son, 16 year-old daughter and five year-old son, all down on their luck, have been living in their car for the last several weeks.
Lejeune says it was so cold one night earlier this month he took his family to the Salvation Army. Noticing the organization’s white flag blowing in the cold air, generally a symbol that all are welcome due to hazardous weather conditions, he says he expected the organization to welcome them with open arms. Instead, he says the shelter told them there was no way they could stay there with a 15 year-old boy.
“He said, ‘I’m sorry, your son, y’all can’t stay here, because of his age,'” Lejeune said. “I said, ‘Are you kidding me?'”
“It was just heartbreaking,” 15 year-old Dustin Lejeune said late last week.
Prepared to return to their cars to sleep in 18 degree weather, Johnson City police officers came upon the family and took up their cause. However, that proved unsuccessful.
Certain the family should not be expected to sleep in their car on one of the coldest nights of the year, the officers brought the family to the Johnson Inn and then did something remarkable. They pooled their resources and were prepared to pay for a motel room for the family with money out of their own pockets.
“They collected money to put the family up and when they were at the Johnson Inn, the clerk that was working there that night realized what was going on, so they themselves comped the room for the family,” Maj. Garry Younger said. “In return, the officers took the money they collected and went and bought groceries that they gave to the family. I’m very proud that we employ people with that fortitude that care about the citizens.”
Police officers AD McElroy, Justin Jenkins, Toma Sparks and Robert McCurry were not the only ones to help this family with a selfless act. Along with police, Washington County-Johnson City 911 dispatchers on shift two helped raise enough money to buy this family groceries, dinner and leave some cash behind for them.
Salvation Army Captain Michael Cox says the organization has a longtime policy that prohibits boys ages 12 to 16 from staying at the shelter. According to Cox, the policy is in place for safety reasons; ultimately to protect children.
Cox says space limitations at the shelter do not allow the building to house maturing boys. He says that policy has only been an issue once before in the last decade or so. That said, he says the Salvation Army is now revisiting its shelter policy.
“It was an unfortunate situation altogether, because we did not have the facilities to put that family in place,” Cox said of the situation. “We did offer further assistance and that was denied.”
In the moments after we first met the family we shared their contact information with the Salvation Army. Monday their car was parked outside the organization. The organization has filled up their gas tank and even let them spend a couple nights at the shelter, but not because of any change of heart. Lejeune says their 15 year-old son is now receiving mental help at an area hospital.
“He ended up having a breakdown and ended up at Woodridge and felt it was all his fault that we were homeless that we couldn’t go anywhere, because of him,” Lejeune said.
While the family awaits the release of their son, they say they are now trying to get their kids enrolled in school and find a permanent housing solution.
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