Union Gospel Mission in danger: Financial support dwindles, but homeless numbers increase

Union Gospel Mission in danger: Financial support dwindles, but homeless numbers increase

June 3rd, 2013 by Clint Cooper in Local Regional News

Brother Jon Rector, standing left, talks with others at the Union Gospel Mission Signal Hills Drive in this 2012 photo. The 63-year-old ministry needs financial rescue if it is to stay open.

Photo by Tim Barber/Times Free Press.

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Without Union Gospel Mission, said Emmett Allgood, there's no telling where he'd be.

"It preserved my life," he said of the 63-year-old nonprofit organization, which served for years as a homeless mission. "It was a springboard for me to get back into society."

Allgood, who completed Union Gospel Mission's residential recovery program in 2010, now has a job, a car and a church he attends regularly.

But despite homelessness in Chattanooga that the Rev. Jon Rector said is "the worst that I've seen," the mission may close its doors by fall.

The organization once served as many as 100 people a night when it was in Chattanooga's Southside. Now it's in a former church building in suburban Signal Hills, has only 16 beds and needs an infusion of $50,000 to $100,000 to continue.

"Maybe it's time to move on," said Rector. "We want to make one last push, though. If we're going to continue, we need continuing support."

Late last week, the faith-based mission -- begun by the former Highland Park Baptist Church but now an independent organization -- sent donors a fundraising letter. It notes that Union Gospel Mission operates a residential recovery program but, because of its location, no longer runs an emergency shelter.

The letter also notes that donations have fallen in the last three years and adds, "It is at this point that we must ask ourselves, 'What is the future of the Union Gospel Mission?'"

The letter suggests the public's response over the next 60 days will determine the mission's path.

Four years ago, when the mission was at the intersection of Main and Market streets, its income was $285,000, according to Rector. Last year, that dropped to $150,000.

"We've never been an organization with a lot of overhead," he said, adding that the agency has only two employees. "Money has never been a motivating factor."

Funding has been hurt by the weak economy, the lack of an emergency shelter and lingering bad feelings toward the then-Highland Park Baptist Church's decision to shut down the mission in 2008, he said.

Need, however, hasn't dropped.

"The numbers [of homeless] are definitely up," said Charlie Hughes, executive director of the Chattanooga Community Kitchen. "We've seen that problem, especially in the need for an emergency shelter."

When Union Gospel Mission could not offer emergency shelter, he said, "it was a huge bite to us."

"It's an awful thing when a case manager, with a client, has to say, 'I don't know where you'll sleep tonight.' We always knew they could go there, if they were willing to behave."

GOING INDEPENDENT

Rector said the mission took a huge chance in moving to independent status when Highland Park planned to close it.

"I took a $10,000 cut in pay," he said. "I haven't had health insurance in three years."

But Allgood, 56, is thankful it was there for him. He'd been in and out of the mission for 20 years when he was on the streets, but when he committed to the recovery program, he found what he needed, he said: patience, caring, accountability, character and a family atmosphere where "we all looked out for each other."

"If I had to sum it up in one word," Allgood said, "it would be 'love.'"

Currently, the mission has nine clients and enough assets to cover its liabilities, Rector said. But that won't last long. An infusion of money, he said, will allow the mission to get on "solid financial footing" and explore plans to expand.

At this point, he said, he'll consider any funding, even government funds, "if we find they're not too restrictive."

"We're a public charity," Rector said, "but we are faith-based."

A previous solicitation of funds from 600 to 800 local evangelical churches drew only three responses, he said.

"We feel like we're a partner organization to local churches," Rector said. "We didn't expect a windfall, but it's frustrating."

ROOTS IN SERMON SERIES

Union Gospel Mission opened in 1950, its roots beginning four years earlier when Highland Park Baptist pastor Lee Roberson began a series of nightly sermons to a group of men in a dilapidated West Main Street boardinghouse.

That same year, the church purchased a former drug and furniture store on Market Street and converted it to fit the needs of 30 men who needed shelter. By the time the church decided to close the shelter, it was in its fourth home in the rapidly gentrifying Main Street neighborhood.

At that time, Chattanooga Outreach Inc. sought and received the rights to the Union Gospel Mission name and has operated it independently since.

The Rev. Jeremy Roberts, pastor of Church of the Highlands (formerly Highland Park Baptist), said it would be hard to imagine Chattanooga without a Union Gospel Mission that "helps people transition from down and out to a renewed sense of purpose."

"It would be heartbreaking to see a pivotal piece of our community have to close her doors," he said. "I hope and pray the people of the Tennessee Valley will rally together to pool our resources and see this great asset to our community continue for many more decades."

Contact staff writer Clint Cooper at ccooper@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6497. Subscribe to my posts online at Facebook.com/ClintCooperCTFP.