Jamie's choice: Foundation to erect apartments for homeless families

Jamie's choice: Foundation to erect apartments for homeless families

June 17th, 2014 by Yolanda Putman in Local - Breaking News

Jamie Britt, left, does laundry with her children Makenzie Smith, 9, and Matthew Smith, 10, at the Community Kitchen. Britt has been living with her children off and on in her car because the only family shelter available to them separates boys into a different home once they are age 10, and Britt doesn't want to split up the family.

Photo by Doug Strickland/Times Free Press.

BY THE NUMBERS

Among industrialized nations, the United States has the largest number of homeless women and children. These statistics are the best estimates of the extent of homelessness, but they are widely believed to be undercounts.

• Homeless families comprise roughly one-third of the total homeless population.

• About 1.6 million children will experience homelessness over the course of a year.

• In any given day, researchers estimate that more than 200,000 children have no place to live.

• Among all homeless women, 60 percent have children under age 18.

Source: The National Center on Family Homelessness

Makenzie Smith, 9, waits in their car as they prepare to leave the Community Kitchen for a hotel room on Thursday. Britt has been living with her two children off and on in her car because the only family shelter available to them separates boys into a different home once they are age 10, and Britt doesn't want to split her 10-year-old son Matthew from the family.

Photo by Doug Strickland/Times Free Press.

Your son or shelter?

That was the choice given to Jamie Britt.

The Maclellan Foundation doesn't think homeless families should have to choose.

So it has committed $600,000 to build an emergency shelter for homeless families in Chattanooga.

It will be the only year-round emergency shelter for homeless families in the city.

First Baptist Church downtown operates a family shelter during the winter months, the Red Cross provides temporary shelter for fire victims, and the Partnership for Families, Children and Adults shelters domestic violence victims, but there is no year-round emergency shelter for families who just can't make rent.

The apartments will be located near the Chattanooga Community Kitchen in its former health center building at 717 E. 11th St. The units will include a total of 64 beds and be staffed around the clock by the Community Kitchen's staff, said David Denmark, executive director of the Maclellan Foundation.

Tower Construction Vice President Calvin Ball expects to start construction in July. All 13 apartments should be complete in six months, he said.

Not since the Great Depression have so many families been without homes, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness. Today, families account for one-third of the nation's homeless population.

Here, the Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition noted a 51 percent increase in family homelessness in 2011 over 2010 based on one-day counts. The number of homeless families increased every year since then, even though homelessness declined overall during some years, according to the coalition. Twenty-seven homeless families were counted in 2010. This year the number is 73. The families include 198 children and adults.

The Maclellan Foundation focused on assisting homeless families after underwriting a study to determine the need for emergency shelters for families in Chattanooga. The study showed that at least 70 families needed emergency shelter in the six months from Jan. 15, 2013, to July 15, 2013, said Jens Christensen, executive director of the Community Kitchen, who conducted the study. The families included 97 adults and 135 children.

The families all ran into obstacles to getting into housing and shelters quickly, including waiting lists and admission requirements.

"It's very difficult to find a place where a family of three or four people can just crash for the night," Christensen said. "So we needed a program that would allow a family to enter right away ... the same night they become homeless."

Most family shelters have waiting lists, and background checks are required for entry. So just getting the necessary paperwork could prevent a family from getting immediate shelter, according to Christensen.

"We identified a pressing need for additional shelter and services designed to meet the unique challenges faced by homeless families," Denmark said.

Britt and her two children, a 9-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son, had been living in her car.

They tried to get into the Chattanooga Rescue Mission, Britt said, but house rules meant that she and her 9-year-old daughter would have to separate from her 10-year-old son. She said staff told her that because of her son's age he would have to stay with the men.

Donald Baer, Chattanooga Rescue Mission director, could not be reached for comment.

In the end, it was really no choice at all for Britt.

"That's my child," she said. "No way I'm leaving him with grown men that I don't know."

And so back to the car it was.

Britt said she's not on drugs and has no mental health issues, but she's homeless because of domestic abuse. Her significant other eventually left her with the children. She said she eventually lost her job because she had to stay with the children on days she couldn't get child care.

She and her children lived out of her car for four months until last week, when she collected enough money through plasma donations and doing temporary work to pay for a hotel.

Britt still hopes to get into a shelter where her family can stay together. Until then she will live in a hotel until her money runs out and then return with her children to her car.

"It's kind of hard to talk about," she said, while leaning against her 2002 Dodge Stratus. "People ask me where I'm staying and I tell them the Stratus hotel."

Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at yputman@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6431.