Grateful Gobbler funds diverted from Chattanooga's homeless

Grateful Gobbler funds diverted from Chattanooga's homeless

January 28th, 2013 by Yolanda Putman in Local Regional News

Thousands of people fill Market Street in downtown Chattanooga during the 2012 Grateful Gobbler Walk, an event that benefits the Chattanooga Homeless Coalition.

Photo by John Rawlston/Times Free Press.

ABOUT THE COALITION

The Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition works to develop community actions that move homeless people and families to self-sufficiency and permanent housing, according to the agency's website. In 2011 the coalition represented 10 local agencies that served people who are homeless.

Instead of being used dollar-for-dollar directly to help people who are homeless, an estimated $20,000 raised during the Grateful Gobbler Walk is being spent on overhead expenses for the Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition.

And some money raised during the 2012 Thanksgiving Day walk may be used to pay attorney fees, said Bo Hixson, the coalition's board chairman.

The board is split, and one member has resigned over whether those are appropriate uses of the Gobbler money.

But Hixson said he plans to replenish all the money as soon as adequate grant money flows in again.

"We're just trying to keep the doors open at this point," Hixson said during the coalition's January board meeting, where the issue was discussed.

The Grateful Gobbler Walk has been a Thanksgiving Day tradition for 13 years. Walkers pay $25 to participate.

According to the 2012 Grateful Gobbler news release, "100 percent of the net proceeds generated by the 2012 Grateful Gobbler Walk will provide our community with funds to assist with the unmet needs of people experiencing homelessness. Last year's Grateful Gobbler proceeds assisted over 200 people in obtaining housing, transportation and case management services."

According to coalition policy, 25 percent of net Gobbler proceeds are dedicated to agencies that assist homeless people, and 75 percent are used to provide rental assistance or pay fees that may help a homeless person get into housing.

The 2012 walk generated an estimated $100,000, and about 20 percent of that has been spent for coalition overhead expenses and other fees, board treasurer Erin Creal said during the January meeting. Some of the money also was used to assist the overnight shelter at the Chattanooga Community Kitchen.

Hixson said it was necessary to use Gobbler money to keep the coalition operating after former Executive Director Mary Simons resigned in November.

Simons was the only person authorized to draw down grant funding available to the coalition, said Hixson. Since Simons' resignation, Clare Sawyer, the interim executive director, also got authority to get some grant funds, Hixson said.

A board member also will get authorization so the coalition always will be able to get resources even if the staff changes, Hixson said.

The coalition has contracted with Chattanooga Housing Authority Chief Financial Officer Philippe Lindsay for forensic review of its finances, according to minutes from the December board meeting.

The forensic review is expected to be complete in February, Hixson said.

Simons declined comment.

CHA Executive Director Betsy McCright, who also declined comment, was chairwoman of the Grateful Gobbler fundraiser and has since resigned from the homeless coalition's board.

According to the December board minutes, McCright asked if federal money was being used to pay for salaries at the coalition. Creal replied that Gobbler funds are being used to operate.

The minutes also stated, "the staff and executive committee have faced many delays with getting a good picture of the financial situation due to staff absences, passwords and keys to the offices."

Hixson stated in a written news release dated Jan. 9, "The resignation of the executive director of the Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition occurred just prior to the Grateful Gobbler Walk. This resulted in the coalition incurring various professional expenses in addressing matters arising prior to and out of that resignation. With a volunteer board to fill in during the absences of an executive director, it was necessary to contract with professionals specializing in areas that the coalition cannot handle internally.

"Because the Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition does not currently have an income source for such unanticipated and nonreoccurring costs and operational expenses, a portion of the Grateful Gobbler funds was used to cover these unforeseen costs," according to the statement.

Beth Ratledge Washburn, a coalition board member and Veterans Administration social worker, opposed the use of Gobbler money to pay expenses even though some board members said it was necessary for the organization to stay afloat until funding could be restored.

"I have two people right now who need that money," she said during the December meeting. "If they don't get it, they could sleep under a bridge tonight."