With the cost of living increasing, while wages remain fairly stagnant, the issue of homelessness continues to affect the city of Chattanooga. Chattanooga city officials and organizations throughout the community have collaborated in order to find solutions for individuals, but more importantly, to prevent people from having to experience homelessness in the first place.
Ellis Smith, Director of Special Projects for the city of Chattanooga, stressed that the numbers of individuals experiencing homelessness has been on the rise. According to metrics from the Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition, the number of total individuals experiencing homelessness has seen a 129% increase from 2020 to 2021.
“The cost of housing has gone up about 85% since 2015 or so, wages have gone up about 15%,” Smith said. Because of this, more than 25% of renters in Chattanooga are housing burdened, meaning that at least half of their income goes only to housing.
“When you’re paying half of your income, or more than half, toward your housing, it only takes a little push…where that becomes unsustainable,” Smith said.
The city, under Mayor Tim Kelly’s administration, has instituted a number of initiatives to address the housing crisis before it leads people to homelessness. Additionally, eviction diversion and prevention initiatives have been adopted by the city to help landlords and renters avoid the struggles of evictions, which can lead to homelessness.
As a public safety measure, a few benches throughout the city were temporarily removed. “We identified a number of benches that were linked to panhandling, harassment, intimidation, etcetera, and we identified those benches for temporary removal as we were rolling out some of these other initiatives that we announced.”
Smith clarified that this bench removal was a small piece of the work the city has been doing to aid those experiencing homelessness, as well as the organizations that help those individuals.
“When we talk about public safety, I think a lot of people think about public safety as something you do to homeless people,” Smith said. “People who are experiencing homelessness are at a very elevated risk…of being physically attacked, of being robbed…” because they lack the protection provided by a stable shelter.
“Having a bench or not having a bench is not a solution to homelessness, that’s really a public safety thing that we did,” Smith said. “There’s a real simple solution to homelessness, and that is a home.”
Another safety measure was the moving of an encampment on 11th Street, which was located near an active railroad, raising serious safety concerns for city officials. Thus, a new encampment was established on 12th Street to continue this support in a safer way.
“It’s a safer way to do it; it’s not ideal, the ideal is to have a home, but it gives us a place where we can triage what their situation is,” Smith said.
Finally, Smith said the city has been and will continue to address the zoning within the city, which has been a major reason why affordable housing has been scarce.
Though the city has the Office of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, there are also several organizations in the community with their individual focuses to help those experiencing homelessness.
The Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition serves as an umbrella organization that unites different groups within the community who are serving the homeless population in different ways.
David Costellow, the Community Engagement Director for the CHATT Foundation (formerly called the Chattanooga Community Kitchen), said that the Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition functions to “help us as individual agencies come together, where it’s particularly important for federal funding…to show that collaboration.”
“They serve as that advocacy element for us, and that cohesion between the services we provide,” Costellow said.
The CHATT Foundation aims to meet the absolute basic human necessities, while also providing other services, including even a foot wash area for people to receive the care they need after walking long distances throughout the city.
There is a special area of the building reserved for the family shelter, while the dining room and day center are located nearby. People can receive three meals a day at the CHATT Foundation, and they can spend the day in the day center relaxing or finding resources like case management.
Through case management, vouchers are provided for the clothing donation center so that individuals can find the clothes they need, especially as the cold weather approaches.
The building is converted into an overnight shelter when the temperatures are dangerously low. The dining room and day center operate as a warm place to sleep on frigid nights from about 7 p.m. to 6 a.m., just before the foundation begins breakfast service.
Costellow emphasized the importance of outreach in the community and with the other organizations. The Regional Outreach Cooperative has formed in the last year to help agencies work together to efficiently serve those who need it, in order to prevent duplicate services, Costellow said.
“With the 12th Street camps, with the affordable housing units that they’re doing over at the Airport Inn, with the other monies that they’ve dedicated to affordable housing and emergency shelter,” Costellow said, “there’s a lot of good things happening.”
The homelessness crisis requires collaboration and creativity throughout all of the organizations in the community. The CHATT Foundation is just one of the many agencies and providers that dedicate time and resources to helping the community.
With the winter holidays approaching, consider donating time or money to any of the organizations helping the community and those who don’t have the chance to spend the holidays the way so many others do.
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