Nearly two and a half years after the city acquired the Farmers’ Market to expand its services to the homeless, the 9.3-acre site itself remains vacant and largely homeless.
“This is not an issue you get into expecting to win a lot of political points,” Mayor Ron Littlefield said of his homeless services complex. “It’s a not-in-my-backyard issue. Anything dealing with homeless is like that.”
Thwarted by environmental concerns, community and council opposition, and even homeless advocates’ resistance, the city has lured only two sure occupants to the downtown property since the mayor persuaded the council to buy it in 2006. The Interfaith Homeless Network will break ground Aug. 27 on its proposed day center for families and children. Work begins this fall on a new public transportation hub for the Southeast Tennessee Human Resources Agency, known as SETHRA.
City’s homeless plan odyssey
* March 2006 — City buys 9-acre Farmers’ Market site for $775,000. Mayor Ron Littlefield says site may be used for homeless services.
* April 2006 — Chattanooga officials present residents of the M.L. King neighborhood with conceptual drawings of a homeless services campus and new building. The design was done forfree by the American Institute of Architects. The then-president of the local AIA, David Hudson, is the business partner of Richard Thompson, who sold the property to the city.
* May 2006 — State Superfund records dating back to 1979 show the site had been a known location of foundry sand and coal tar contamination since 1916. Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation officials said the site would have to be cleaned up to residential standards for a homeless shelter to be placed there.
* June 2006 — Tennessee environmental regulators step in to oversee Chattanooga’s plan and cleanup of the Farmers’ Market property.
* August 2006 — A citizens group called Citizens for Real Homeless Solution opposes plan for homeless shelter at site.
* April 2007 — The homelessness task force recommends 2004 blueprint be updated before the proposed homeless complex is built.
* May 2007 — American Institute of Architects finalizes a potential plan for the Farmers’ Market site to house a homeless complex, including overnight shelters, an intake processing center and a transportation garage for the Southeast Tennessee Human Resource Agency, known as SETHRA.
* November 2007 — City Council authorizes a 40-year lease with Interfaith Homeless Network for a new family day center for homeless families with children.
* January 2008 — By 7-1 vote, Chattanooga City Council approves the Southeast Tennessee Human Resource Agency’s plan to build a $1.5 million transit and training center at the rear of the site.
* June 2008 — Union Gospel Mission moves out of longtime shelter at Main and Market streets, relocates to old Senter School rather than the Farmers’ Market.
* August 2008 — M.L. King Neighborhood Association again takes opposition to homeless site to the City Council.
But the shelters and most other homeless services locally that would have anchored a centralized homeless services in the complex have not accepted the city’s invitation to locate there.
The Salvation Army is resisting pressure to move out of the path of development at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and opted to stay put. Union Gospel Mission, itself homeless in recent months, relocated in July to Senter School on Holtzclaw Avenue several blocks away.
Refusing to close the door on his plan, Mr. Littlefield insists the Farmers’ Market ultimately will serve a vital role for city government and help the homeless.
The newest hope is to open a storefront design studio in a renovated building along 11th Street and to build a downtown police station and possibly a community garden on the site in the next year or two.
“Most things take longer than the 21st Century Waterfront plan,” Mr. Littlefield said, referring to previous Mayor Bob Corker’s completion of a downtown remodel in one term.
The mayor also pointed to the new city-owned McKamey Animal Shelter, which took six years to build, “and we weren’t dealing with having to nudge all these agencies and organizations” involved with homeless services.
The tangles in the mayor’s dream began early — even with the city’s $775,000 purchase of the Farmers’ Market property, on Mr. Littlefield’s request, from some of the mayor’s former campaign contributors: Rick and William R. Thompson and their father, the late William Aubrey Thompson. The family gave Mr. Littlefield’s mayoral campaign $2,000.
On the heels of the purchase, pollution problems on the property surfaced, problems that Mr. Littlefield acknowledges already have cost an additional $50,000 just in screenings and design expenses.
The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation stated that the property could not be used as a shelter unless it was cleaned up to a residential standard. Months later, the department issued an order with the city that stated the property could be used for “temporary” adult shelter and day facilities for children if cleaned up to its specifications.
Those specifications include removal of contaminated soil, installation of a rubberized geobarrier, installation of at least 2 feet of clean dirt on top of that, buildings fitted with vapor barriers, and restrictions on digging and any other lawn care or soil disturbance.
TDEC also placed a deed covenant on the site: Though cleaned to residential standard if the specifications are met, the property must remain commercial.
But environmental concerns have paled beside the community backlash and the wall of resistance from some homeless service advocates.
Neighborhood opposition continued at a City Council meeting last week to what some have termed “a homeless Taj Mahal.”
Merri Mai Williamson, a 10th Street homeowner who serves on the board of the M.L. King Neighborhood Association, helped organize a group to fight use of the Farmers’ Market site for homeless services. The group, known as Citizens for Real Homeless Solutions, has collected more than 1,000 petitions opposing the mayor’s plans. Group members contend if the neighborhood contains too many service agencies there, they might face increased crime in an urban area just beginning to attract a more gentrified population.
Ms. Williamson said residents working with the Regional Planning Agency to develop plans to revitalize the M.L. King neighborhood have come up with other ideas for the Farmers’ Market site.
“But we have been told that we don’t have a choice about this site,” she said. “I can tell you that any homeless services going on that site are going to be met with opposition.”
Ms. Williamson said she fears that combining services at the site “will only attract more people to the area and, while people may get the opportunity for services, they won’t be made to use them. You’ll have people flocking in for the meals and then just hanging out in the neighborhood.”
Service agency leaders, too, are concerned. The reluctance on the part of homeless advocates and service groups to move toward what the mayor calls “cooperation” has proven to be major slowdown of the plan.
Despite two “blueprints” to improve homeless services, getting the groups together is a bit like herding cats, the mayor said.
“You’d think all these organizations would have the same goal, which is helping people get back on their feet, and that they would be very free about sharing their information and clients,” the mayor said.
But things are not so simple, he said.
“I told another group of mayors at a national gathering that I was having great problems with getting the organizations to work together, and they laughed,” he said. “They said it was such a common problem that I was just discovering.”
No easy answers
Every city has a homeless population, and each is searching for solutions, according to Mr. Littlefield.
Many of those cities, Mr. Littlefield said, are coming around to the idea of coordinating support resources together.
“I know that people thought when we wrote the first blueprint, and we got the first $1 million grant, people thought, ‘Hey, that’s it. Problem’s solved.’ No. It was just the beginning,” he said.
Mr. Littlefield said he believed the purchase of the Farmers’ Market would be the glue that sealed Chattanooga’s efforts and help provide better access to homeless services to those in need.
“While a real estate project is not the solution, what you do with that coordination of resources often takes a piece of real estate to make it happen,” he said.
Officials with two of the largest shelters locally said they have not ruled out moving to the Farmers’ Market property.
Salvation Army spokeswoman Kimberly George said her organization will be doing a feasibility study this fall about expansion possibilities and locations.
Jon Rector, executive director of the Union Gospel Mission, said his organization hasn’t ruled out building its own facility and making a future move to the Farmers’ Market, despite its recent temporary move to Senter School.
“I’ve always through it was a good theory, and I want to see how it works,” he said of the homeless services complex idea. “I just wonder if you can put five to 20 agencies on the same nine acres and not have conflicts.”
The mayor insists that buying the property at the Farmers’ Market, making it available and talking about community needs set things in motion in a positive way.
Staff Photo by Meghan Brown
Workers with the city’s summer youth work program paint the former Farmers’ Market site on 11th Street. Supervisor Carlton Cameron says the workers spent the summer painting the site’s five buildings.
“It’s like a Rubik’s Cube,” he said. “You kind of have to wait and see where some of the pieces end up after they stop moving to move again. And they’re all moving in their own way, and I’m very pleased about the way they’re moving now.”
The mayor and one of his assistants, Richard Beeland, met earlier this year with leaders from local foundations that fund some of the help agencies for a discussion of “cooperation.”
“If you are not willing to be part of the team, it doesn’t really make sense for you to continue to get funded or get that piece of the pie if there’s someone more qualified or has better results that could use that in a more efficient, effective way,” Mr. Beeland said.
Pete Cooper, executive director of the Chattanooga Community Foundation, said there hasn’t been the groundswell of support for homeless services that rallied around other community efforts.
“One of the problems with the homeless issue is that there are not major champions in the community other than the mayor that are committed to solve this issue,” he said.
Sarah Morgan, program officer for the Lyndhurst Foundation, said reaching consensus about services and locations for homeless programs remains difficult.
“Now that we’ve had conversations with some of these folks, we understand how hard it is,” she said. “This is a very complex issue.”
The mayor concedes that not a lot will change before the end of his term.
The Community Kitchen’s expansion across the street from the city’s Farmers’ Market complex will be finished by the end of the year. Community Kitchen’s director of marketing, Jens Christensen, said the kitchen has approved a “preliminary concept of a lease” to use some space in the Farmers’ Market to store furniture or move its recycling operation to make room for its new day services expansion.
Architect Andy Smith, who Mr. Littlefield said is drawing plans for the police station and gardens at the complex, is expected to create an office for himself and community design there as well.
The mayor also said he is looking ahead to the next homeless program out of Washington.
“Sooner of later, whoever is elected president, there will be a new initiative and program. We want to be ready,” he said.
“We’ll always have the conditions that create homelessness,” Mr. Littlefield said. “A city has to be willing and able to step up and make sure those resources are coordinated and effective.”
The mayor said he continues to believe he can make his dream happen.
“Two years from now, I think people will be coming here to see how we accomplished this, just like people are coming to see the riverfront now. That is my hope and my dream,” he said.
Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...