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As freezing temperatures set in, the largest emergency shelter in Chattanooga is struggling to find staff and volunteers to operate.
The Chattanooga Community Kitchen hasn't been open since Thanksgiving night, not because the weather wasn't cold enough, but because it doesn't have funding to staff 24-hour operations even on the city's coldest nights, Executive Director Charlie Hughes said.
Instead of providing night-time shelter, the kitchen has been giving out blankets and sleeping bags when it has them, he said.
But on Thursday night the wind chill was forecast to be 8 degrees, Hughes said, and kitchen officials figured out a way to open. He said he will be on the phone today making calls for staff to man the shelter again tonight.
Temperatures tonight are expected to hit 21 degrees.
At stake are the lives of Chattanooga's homeless, including children, who sleep on the streets.
An average of 120 people a night stayed at the Community Kitchen during the winter of 2011-2012, the first year it operated for the winter season as a 24-hour shelter. Then, the youngest homeless person at the shelter was 8 months old. The oldest was 75.
At least one homeless man died in 2010 because of weather-related circumstances. He was found just after Christmas near a downtown railroad track, according to kitchen officials.
Community Kitchen volunteer Anthony Wayne, who formerly was homeless, said he knows of a man who froze to death while sleeping outside behind the community kitchen and another man who had his toes amputated because of frostbite.
Hughes expects Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition officials will go to city officials within a week to ask for funding for the shelter, but coalition Executive Director Steven Wright said Wednesday that he can't confirm that. He said he wants to get more information before speaking about it, but he commended Hughes on his efforts to provide emergency shelter.
The kitchen also is working on plans to convert its former Homeless Health Care building next to the kitchen into a family shelter so that families who are homeless will not have to be separated according to sex, said Vanessa Blevins, the kitchen's finance director. The hope is to secure funding from local charities and have the family shelter operating by this time next year, but right now the kitchen's major focus is providing shelter through the winter, she said.
The Homeless Coalition had $75,000 in city funding for the community kitchen to have a 24-hour shelter from November through the end of February in 2013. The money paid for staff for the shelter and an off-duty police officer who provided security. But the coalition went through a leadership transition in 2013 and did not reapply for funding for this year.
Chattanooga resident Willie Tubbs said he hopes city officials decide to fund the shelter.
"This keeps people from freezing," he said while at the kitchen on Wednesday night.
He came there for shelter because his home has no heat.
"They never need to shut this down," he said. "Because tonight I wouldn't know what to do."
Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at firstname.lastname@example.org.