Out of the cold: As temperatures plunge, shelter opens to homeless in Chattanooga

Out of the cold: As temperatures plunge, shelter opens to homeless in Chattanooga

January 4th, 2014 by Judy Walton in Local Regional News

Shirley Hayden, left, and Nora Stough settle in at the Chattanooga Rescue Mission to sleep out of the cold on Friday in Chattanooga.

Photo by Maura Friedman /Times Free Press.


Chattooga's all time low: -10 (in 1985, 1966 and 1899),

Daily normal temps in January: Average 40.5, maximum 50.2, minimum 30.7

Coldest average for month of January: 28.5 in 1977

Source: National Weather Service

Lowest January temperature in the last five years:

2013: 26

2012: 19

2011: 13

2010: 14

2009: 9

Source: National Weather Service

Chattanooga's homeless population got a message of hope Friday: They'll have a warm place to sleep when icy winds scour the city tonight and early next week, and the city is working to make sure the shelter stays open during the worst winter weather.

Donna Williams, who heads the city's Economic and Community Development Center, said she and Mayor Andy Berke met with officials of the Chattanooga Homeless Coalition on Friday to map out a plan to funnel city dollars into keeping the shelter open.

Coalition leaders will go before the City Council on Tuesday, Williams said, and request funding from this year's budget. She didn't know the exact amount, but last year the city gave the coalition $75,000.

"The shelter's open and will be open for the foreseeable future," Williams said. "What we're trying to do is get them funding to extend it for the duration [of the cold weather.] There's no risk of anyone not being served in the next week or two."

The Chattanooga Community kitchen this year didn't get its usual $75,000 to operate the shelter because the Homeless Coalition didn't apply for city funding. The funding helps pay for overnight staffing for the emergency shelter.

With or without extra funding, Community Kitchen Executive Director Charlie Hughes said, staff and volunteers would make sure the doors stay open when temperatures plummet to the teens and single digits.

"On days we really perceive it to be dangerous, we're going to go ahead and do the best we can with what we've got," Hughes said.

And it's going to be dangerous in the next few days.

WRCB-Channel 3 meteorologist Paul Barys said Sunday should bring rain changing to snow and plunging temperatures.

Tuesday's low could fall to 6 degrees, the coldest January temperature in the city since 2009. He predicts the high Tuesday to be almost 10 degrees below the freezing mark, with temperatures warming up into the 40s by Wednesday.

That doesn't come close to Chattanooga's cold-weather record. The city has recorded temps of minus 10 three times: Jan. 21, 1985; Jan. 31, 1966; and Feb. 13, 1899.


Keep yourself, your loved ones and your home safe in extremely cold weather with these tips:

• In hypothermia, core temperature drops below 95 degrees. In severe hypothermia, core body temperature drops to 86 degrees or lower. 90 percent of heat is lost through the skin, the rest from lungs. Wear layers of lightweight clothing to stay warm. Gloves and a hat will help prevent losing body heat.

• Bring your pets indoors. If they can't come inside, make sure they have enough shelter to keep them warm and that they can get to unfrozen water.

• If you are using a space heater, place it on a level, hard surface and keep anything flammable at least three feet away, such as paper, clothing, bedding, curtains or rugs. Children and pets should be kept away from space heaters. Turn off space heaters and make sure fireplace embers are out before leaving the room or going to bed.

• If you are using a fireplace, use a glass or metal fire screen large enough to catch sparks and rolling logs.

• Never operate a generator inside the home, including in the basement or garage.

• Don't hook a generator up to the home's wiring. The safest thing to do is to connect the equipment you want to power directly to the outlets on the generator.

Source: American Red Cross

But for the homeless, the very young and the very old, even moderately cold temperatures can be risky. Hypothermia - a potentially life-threatening lowering of body temperature - can set in even at 50 degrees or higher in windy or wet weather, according to WebMD.com. At least one homeless person in Chattanooga died in 2010 from exposure, newspaper archives show.

Hughes said the kitchen's emergency shelter averaged 120 or more people a night last year. Thursday was the first night the shelter opened this winter; before that, the Community Kitchen handed out sleeping bags and blankets to its clients.

"The real problem is that Chattanooga doesn't have any true emergency shelters," Hughes said.

A few years ago, the city had as many as 200 emergency shelter beds. Now it's down to the 60 available at the Chattanooga Rescue Mission in the old Senter School on Holtzclaw Avenue.

As the sun - and the mercury - sank Friday afternoon, Donald Baer held the door so Shirley Hayden and Nora Stough could bundle their belongings into the women's side of the shelter.

Baer is director of administration and chaplaincy services at the Rescue Mission. With the Salvation Army and the Union Gospel Mission no longer offering emergency shelter, "that pretty much left us the main player in this area," he said.

The mission can boost its bed space by 15 to 20 by opening the chapel, he said. And there are plans to renovate the building's third floor for more housing.

But that's a few years in the future, Baer said, and "the need is today."

Some shelter users fit the stereotype: substance abusers. The mentally ill. But Baer said most don't: Women and kids fleeing domestic violence. Victims of the economic crash. Military veterans.

"What we do is simply try to meet them where they are. They're in need and we're not here to do anything but what the Lord would do, which is simply to love them," Baer said.

On the other side of the building, Tyrone Murphy stood in a line of men waiting to go in for the night.

Murphy said he got out of prison Tuesday after serving two years on a drug charge. He guesses he'll stay at the shelter a couple of months while he gets re-established as a commercial truck driver.


Blankets and sleeping bags: The Chattanooga Community Kitchen is seeking donated blankets and sleeping bags to hand out to people who must sleep outdoors. Bring in-kind donations to the kitchen at 727 E. 11th St. Money donations are accepted online at www.homelesschattanooga.org or by mail at P.O. Box 11203, Chattanooga, TN 37401.

Heaters and blankets: The Salvation Army needs blankets for the homeless and space heaters for the elderly, as well as monetary donations. Visit 822 McCallie Ave., donate online at www.csarmy.org or call 1-800-756-1023.

Metropolitan Ministries accepts money donations. Email www.met-min.org or call 423-624-9654.

Chattanooga Rescue Mission needs money donations and volunteers, plus donations of canned goods, household item and personal items or support for its food and shelter programs. Learn more at www.chattanoogarescuemission.com/donations or call 423-756-3126.

He said he's elated to be free - from a prison cell and from drugs.

"It's just unbelievable right now how you can crawl out of the gutter and if you want to change, it can happen. ... Saving lives in Jesus' name is happening," Murphy said.

At Metropolitan Ministries, Executive Director Rebecca Whelchel said the organization will start Monday using money from Peggy's Purse, a fund named for founding board member Peggy Lane, to pay for shelter for homeless families with children.

Whelchel said the agency has money to help the first 30 people it sees in a day. People start lining up outside the McCallie Avenue office at 2 a.m. for the 8 a.m. opening, she said.

"We start every day by saying no, more and more. It gets worse every day," she said.

The ministry helps with money for everything from prescriptions to utility bills, she said.

The Salvation Army doesn't have an overnight shelter but operates a day shelter where people can come for a cup of coffee, get warm and check messages, spokeswoman Kimberly George said.

It also has a program to hand out heaters to the elderly and blankets to the homeless, George said.

For the sick, the very young and the very old, losing electricity is more than an inconvenience - it can be life-threatening.

EPB will "make every effort possible" to help customers who can't pay their bills keep the power on during the depths of winter, spokesman John Pless said.

Staff writers Joy Lukachick and Ellis Smith contributed to this report.

Contact staff writer Judy Walton at jwalton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416.