published Monday, February 8th, 2010

Area poor mostly stay in the city

Standing in the freezing rain two hours before sunrise last Friday, Missy Wallace joined nearly three dozen other homeless Chattanoogans waiting for the Chattanooga Community Kitchen to open for breakfast.

The 33-year-old woman lost her cashier job at a Florida Kroger supermarket and, after relocating to Chattanooga, sleeps most nights on the steps of a downtown church.

"I want to get a job and a house, but until I do, it's great that the Kitchen helps so many of us out," she said.

With the economy still sputtering, the Community Kitchen and other agencies serving the poor are having to help a lot more people -- most of whom come from the inner city and nearby neighborhoods.

"The number of meals we serve has doubled since 2000 and, while we serve a wide variety of people, the overwhelming majority come from right here in Chattanooga," said Jens Christensen, director of marketing at the Community Kitchen. "We're seeing a lot of first-time homeless people and a lot of scared faces of people coming into our doors for assistance from those who never imagined being in the situation they are in."

A new study by the Brooking Institution found that poverty is moving into the suburbs in most of America's metropolitan cities. But in metro Chattanooga, the poor still disproportionately reside in the city.

From 2000 to 2008, the number of Chattanooga residents living in poverty jumped by more than 20 percent in the city, nearly double the increase in the growth in poverty in suburban Chattanooga and far faster than the 13.3 percent growth in poverty nationwide, according to Brookings.

poverty moves to suburbs

Elizabeth Kneebone, a senior research analyst who wrote the Brookings study, said the recession has boosted the number of poor people living in most areas of the country. But the biggest jump in where poor people live was in the suburbs from 2000 to 2008, she said.

"As people have moved out from the inner cities and suburbs have had the greatest population growth, we reached a tipping point in the past decade in which a bigger share of the poor nationwide now live in the suburbs than in the primary cities of metro areas," Ms. Kneebone said.

In most of America, suburban poverty grew five times faster than it did in the primary cities, she said.

"But in Chattanooga, the poverty rate showed a significant increase in the city and no change in the suburbs over this time period," she said.

Ms. Kneebone said poverty has remained more concentrated in some cities such as Chattanooga where housing patterns are more segregated.

David Eichenthal, president of the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies, also suggested that Chattanooga's poverty rate may have remained much higher in the city because Chattanooga previously has annexed some suburban areas that, in other metro areas, might be outside the core city.

PDF: Brookings report on poverty

More meals

About 80,000 meals were served in 2000 at the Community Kitchen, but that number jumped to 130,749 by 2008 and last year reached a record 171,001, figures show.

Such annexations have included areas of high-poverty concentrations such as Brainerd and Amnicola Highway.

concentrated problems

The poverty level, defined as an annual income below $10,830 for an individual and $21,835 for a family of four, included 21.2 percent of all residents in Chattanooga in 2008. Brookings forecasts that number probably grew to 23.2 percent last year as unemployment grew and income fell for many Chattanoogans.

Outside the city in the six-county metro area, however, the poverty rate remained relatively stable and included only 9.4 percent of those living in the suburbs.

A broader definition of "low income" -- those making 200 percent or less of the poverty level -- included 67,918 individuals, or 42.7 percent of the city's population, in 2008, the Brookings study of U.S. Census Bureau data said.

By comparison, only 28.3 percent of the suburban population is in such a low-income category.

Mr. Eichenthal said in five of the 36 subregions of Hamilton County -- all within Chattanooga -- more than 30 percent of the residents live in poverty.

"These are the parts of the city where more half the robberies and 40 percent of all aggravated assaults in Hamilton County occur," he said. "More than a third of public school students in these areas fail to attend school regularly."

The Chattanooga Community Kitchen serves many of the growing number of poor people. The number of meals served to homeless and needy Chattanoogans at the 11th Street complex has more than doubled since the turn of the century.

About 80,000 meals were served in 2000 but that number jumped to 130,749 by 2008 and last year reached a record high of 171,001, figures show.

In his State of the City address last week, Mayor Ron Littlefield continued to push for a downtown emergency shelter to house and serve the city's growing homeless population.

"The recent days of bitter cold and challenging weather condition underscore the need for an emergency shelter to house our homeless," Mr. Littlefield said. "We've made great strides with the Community Kitchen, the Interfaith Homeless Network and other facilities. But it's time for a well designed and specialized emergency shelter."

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