published Friday, May 24th, 2013

Cook: Anything but poverty

The strip mall was like any other: a manicurist, a shoe shop or Laundromat, some empty storefronts with "For Lease" signs in their windows. It was surrounded by asphalt Hamilton County: four-lane roads, fast food and red lights.

Behind the strip mall were some woods. And in the little sliver of alley between the back of the strip mall and the woods sat a tent.

Inside the tent was a mattress. A blanket. A pillow.

It was someone's home.

Nearby, their garden. Maybe four feet by two, cobbled together from scrap wood from who knows where, the garden had some onions, thin lettuce about to burn in the May sun and a few tomato plants.

The man who lived there, I was told, was a senior citizen, and couldn't read very well. Before living in the tent, he had slept in unlocked storage sheds. Sneaking in at night, leaving before the sun came up.

Imagine it.

This is life in the other Chattanooga, the hidden one not named to the List of Best Places to Live.

In this other Chattanooga, tornadoes strike all the time.

"The post-traumatic stress you see in Oklahoma after the tornado hit? It happens here too," another homeless man said.

This guy? Sleeps in his van. Parks it near whatever spare electrical outlet he can find to power his fan in the summer and little heater in the winter. His shoes? Holes in them. His shirt? Stained. And borrowed. He doesn't even own the shirt off his back.

The suddenness of the tornado -- your house was there in the morning, gone by the evening -- is different from the ongoing grind of poverty. But both produce a growing anxiety, jittery sadness and huge sense of loss deep in your bones.

"It's continuing and ongoing, whether you're a victim of eviction, foreclosure, housing fire, tornado. The net affect is the same," the man said.

Earlier this week, the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies released its 2013 State of the Chattanooga Region Health Report. At its core, the report says two things.

If you're wealthy, things are fine.

If you're not, things are bad. And getting worse.

But you know this. I could list every statistic in the report, but you already know it. I do, too.

So why is the storm here still spinning?

"From over here on the front lines, it feels like it's an intentional nonmovement. Anything but poverty," said Becky Whelchel, executive director of Metropolitan Ministries on McCallie Avenue. "It's very difficult to get traction for the simplest things that would help poor people."

Outside her office, poor people line up hours before the sun rises, trying to be first in line to obtain services for the day. A light bill paid. Help with groceries. Anything.

"You ever been in a place in your life when you could see the whole house of cards was about to come down?" she said. "A lot of our clients are like that. They're on the verge of everything falling apart."

For all our hipness and tourism and Best City superlatives, we don't even have a year-round homeless shelter in this city.

(I once told an out-of-town friend that. She was shocked. Couldn't believe it. Thought I was lying.)

And we're seeing poverty strike hard not just in the stereotypical urban core, but in the outlying suburbs.

And we're about to turn downtown housing into something only afforded by the rich.

"We're interested in having really cool places and microbreweries and making places where poor people used to live delightful for everybody but them," said Whelchel. "Inviting, for everybody but them."

At what point do we begin to take these issues seriously as a city and county? How does it happen? Who leads it?

Will a movement ever really form here?

Or will we just continue to look the other way, and pretend the sky is not falling?

"What do you do to elicit a change of heart?" Whelchel asked.

Contact David Cook at or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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LaughingBoy said...

The tornado is something beyond control. Poverty can be avoided by an individual if she or he makes good choices no matter the early background. Typical fluff from this columnist.

May 24, 2013 at 9:57 a.m.
Rickaroo said...

Typical jaded wingnut response from LaughingBoy. Hard work, self confidence, and "good choices" certainly go a long way towards shaping our lives and making us the people we are. But those who cannot understand or empathize with people who have not had the benefit of a decent upbringing or who have been hit hard by misfortune and circumstances beyond their control are arrogant and callous in a way that is mind boggling. It seems to be the reflexive, immediate assumption of today's tea-party conservatives and libertarians alike that anybody who does not meet their standard of outward social and economic success is a loser, moocher, taker, and deserves nothing but scorn and ridicule. Their arrogance is compounded by the fact that they don't have the good sense or the decency to realize how truly fortunate they are to be enjoying their station in life that makes them feel so superior. They live under the delusion that they are entirely self reliant and did everything on their own. Their pride even goes beyond arrogance. It is unconscionable and disgusting.

May 25, 2013 at 12:51 p.m.
OmAli said...

That is a very ugly laugh.

May 25, 2013 at 1 p.m.
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