Gregory Moses takes a stance in the middle of a railroad track close to what was once known as Onion Bottom near downtown Chattanooga.
“I’m the Alaska fisherman, and I speak seven languages,” he says. “I’m not homeless.”
But he is.
He lives in a tent along the tracks. And he’s not alone. There are more than a dozen tents along the stretch of rail line.
“Track rats. That’s what we are,” said Robert Dewulf, another of the 30 to 40 homeless people who live in tents along crisscrossing railroad tracks off 11th Street and near the Chattanooga Community Kitchen, where free meals are available.
“It’s a struggle. It’s tough. It’s survival. It’s a fight,” Dewulf said.
More tents are tucked among weeds and trees on a side of Cameron Hill. Tents and vans sit in a patch of woods near 20th Street. Sleeping bags line the concrete shelf of an overpass on Chestnut Street. Tarp houses dot a woodsy patch of land between Camp Jordan and Interstate 75.
This is not the first time homeless men and women have built tent cities in Chattanooga. But last week’s death of a homeless “track rat” in the scorching heat forced recognition of growing homelessness that may be worse today than it’s ever been, despite numbers to the contrary.
With a sour economy, more and more homeless people are seeking help, social workers say, even as fewer than ever homeless shelter beds are available locally.
Air-conditioner repairman Michael Holloway said he’s been looking almost every day for a job for two years, but he still finds himself with no work, no money and nowhere to live except outdoors in a tent.
“Better that than getting rained on,” said the 57-year-old father of eight. “At 57, people don’t want to hire you.”
Four years ago, Norfolk Southern railroad bulldozed dozens of tents for the homeless along the Choo Choo railroad because of “safety concerns.” But this time, the makeshift homes are scattered among a number of locations.
“They have to be,” said Ron Fender, a monk and outreach worker with the Community Kitchen, where many of the city’s homeless people eat each day.
“The city will not tolerate a tent city. That’s been made very clear to us,” Fender said. “The camps have to be out of sight. They can’t be trashed. There can’t be fire. And if the owner of the property complains, they’re gone.”
But there’s little choice for many people — especially single men — who are down on their luck.
About 561 people in the 11-county Southeast Tennessee region are homeless on any given night, according to the 2011 Chattanooga Homeless Coalition’s point-in-time count.
But there are 46 beds for men and 14 beds for women at the Chattanooga Rescue Mission — the only emergency shelter still operating locally.
The point-in-time count found a slight decrease in homelessness from years past, especially among people who are “chronically” homeless. Officials with the Chattanooga Homeless Coalition didn’t return calls for comment, but the social workers who feed the homeless say they are seeing an increase, not a decrease.
Jens Christensen, assistant director of the Chattanooga Community Kitchen, said the facility served 170,000 meals in 2009, 181,000 in 2010 and more than 82,000 in the first five months of this year.
The kitchen occasionally opens its doors to the homeless at night in dangerously cold weather, and Christensen said the number of people needing a warm respite has at least doubled in the past five years.
Forty to 50 people a night stayed at the kitchen’s emergency shelter in 2006. By last winter, the number averaged 100 people a night. Sometimes the count was as high as 150, he said.
In the summer heat, Chattanooga Rescue Mission, with its 60 beds, is the only emergency shelter open at night. It’s full almost every evening, officials said.
“We’re the main option in the area. We could use a couple of other shelters. That would be a big help,” said Donald Baer, director of the Rescue Mission.
Billie Bob Brown said he’s lived outdoors on the side of the Norfolk Southern railroad tracks for two years, but railroad officials warned him this summer that because of trash he and his neighbors accumulated outside his tent, his community may be destroyed.
“If we had some place to throw our trash, we would throw our trash there,” said Brown. “We ain’t got no place. If we take it to throw it in another trash, they say they’ll put us in jail.”
Five years ago, Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield purchased the Farmers Market for $775,000 to expand its services to the homeless.
The city released a rendering of a shelter that some dubbed “the homeless Taj Mahal.”
Today, plagued by a history of pollution, much of the 9.3-acre site between 11th and 12th streets and near the Chattanooga Community Kitchen remains vacant.
Littlefield’s spokesman, Richard Beeland, said the city never planned to fund a shelter inside the warehouses, but made the property available if anyone had the resources to build a shelter.
The Interfaith Homeless Network, which manages a network of churches that offer temporary beds in parishes to homeless families, has built an office on one corner of the property. The Chattanooga Furniture Bank and the Southeast Tennessee Human Resource Agency also have offices on the plot.
The old warehouse buildings still standing on the Farmers Market site soon will be remodeled to become a police station.
Beeland said $400,000 has been allocated for it in the city’s capital budget, and the proposal goes to the City Council soon. The Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department also is proposing to put a health center inside the building, he said.
In 2007, when railroad officials bulldozed a large tent city near there, Chattanooga city and social work officials used the Farmers Market warehouses as part of a public effort to bring a one-stop help system to the displaced tent city people.
About two dozen homeless people were placed in apartments — most in public housing projects managed by the Chattanooga Housing Authority.
A handful of the those folks are still in their apartments, according to Fender. And twice a year, social workers still try to have one-stop help sessions.
CHA, however, has faced financial and management problems in recent years, so fewer apartments have been available, he said.
In the meantime, any promise of a real emergency shelter for Chattanooga remains elusive despite increased need and fewer beds.
In 2009, the city lost 100 shelter beds when the Union Gospel Mission closed its emergency shelter.
“We desperately need a shelter — even if it’s just a bathroom and a place for these people to lay down,” Fender said.
“But City Hall now says that the people of Chattanooga do not have the political will [to build one], and that it’s not the city’s responsibility to shelter the homeless,” he said. “I think what they’re saying is that the public thinks, ‘Not in my backyard.’”
Choosing heat and bugs over a shelter bed “is a choice of freedom,” said Antoine Ray, 30, who grew up in North Chattanooga but is in the tent row along the tracks because of “lack of jobs.”
“If you don’t sit through their Bible lessons, you don’t get in and you don’t get to go to bed. And you spend all your time hurrying to wait. You have to carry all your 50 pounds of things from there every day and then back. Having to do that while you go out and look for a job — it’s not a help.”
Lack of jobs is just part of the problem, said Fender, noting that about 82 percent of homeless people are thought to have some form of mental illness.
“Homelessness is very complex,” he said. “For the entire history of humankind, the homeless are the outcasts of society. They’re the people who are mentally ill, who are addicted and who have made bad choices and they’ve been outcast. Those are the people who we often deal with. Not all homeless people are a victim of the economy.”
Leon Paul Jones, 55, grew up in Fort Oglethorpe and used to be a boilermaker who earned about $28 an hour. He was diagnosed in 1981 with paranoid schizophrenia, he said, standing between the tracks and the tent he said Fender gave him.
“My mother had the same thing,” Jones said, ticking off the medication he must take — when he doesn’t run out of it. “I could draw $400 a week unemployment, but I’m not going to lie: I’m not able to work.”
Gregory Moses folds his hands to calm them.
“I’ve got a lot in my life that’s bad,” he says. “My liver’s gone. My kidneys are gone. My mom hates me. That’s why I’m here right now. I joined the Navy SEALs in 1988. I’m a born sniper. I’m an alcoholic. Totally. I won’t stop. Sometimes I work for the government. And, P.S: Mama, I love you.”
He takes a ragged breath, then walks away from the track and into a group of men having a happy hour in their tents just downrail of 12th Street.
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, ...