By 9 a.m. on a recent morning, the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Homeless Health Care Center was packed, said patient Wilfred Smith as he waited for a cancer screening at the first-come, first-served health clinic.
By noon, the lobby area began to thin out.
The 53-year-old recent Chattanooga transplant said he stays under a bridge in East Ridge and has been homeless for more than 20 years.
At the health care center, Smith said he's gotten care that he couldn't otherwise afford.
"They try to help you on everything," he said. "They do a real good job here."
Now, after 22 years in a 5,500-square-foot building adjacent to the Chattanooga Community Kitchen, the health center is getting federal funding for an expansion that will meet rising demand.
"It just seems like the need keeps getting bigger," said clinical coordinator Debbie Gilreath.
The Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department will use a $2.7 million grant to replace the Homeless Health Care Center on 11th Street with a new, larger facility across the street.
The center, run by the local health department, is a federally qualified community health center and provides care on a sliding scale to a low-income, underserved population.
The recent grant is part of $727 million awarded to 143 community health centers nationwide for construction and renovation projects under the health care reform law passed in March, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The old center has long outgrown its space and the demand has heightened in the economic downturn, said Karen Guinn, project director for the health department.
Since 2005 patient volumes have grown from 15,454 visits from 3,600 unique patients, to 20,143 visits from 3,667 patients last year, she said.
Treatment for substance abuse, mental health and physical disorders is critical to helping people get back into the work force and secure a place to live, Guinn said.
"Our main focus is to assist people where they are and help them move out of homelessness," she said.
The 14,000-square-foot center at the corner of 11th and Peeples streets will be almost three times the size of the current space and will boost the number of patient exam rooms to 12.
Construction will start as soon as possible and must be finished by Sept. 30, 2012, Guinn said.
An expanded lobby will provide much needed waiting room for patients, and the extra space will allow staff to have their own offices and create new private patient consultation rooms, Guinn said.
"Our patients were standing in the lobby, sometimes they were lined up out the door, sometimes they stood on the sidewalk," she said.
The new site also could include a dental clinic, filling a critical need in the homeless population, Guinn said.
Gilreath said the staff is most excited about having rooms set aside for patient consultations, so patients can speak freely about private medical issues behind a closed door, she said. The site will also have space for a room for medical supplies and one for pharmaceuticals, which are stored in closets at the current center, she said.
The city of Chattanooga donated the land for the new facility, which will be located on the old Farmer's Market site purchased in 2006 for $775,000, according to Times Free Press archives.
The new community health center "is exactly what Mayor Littlefield had in mind when he purchased this site. While it's taking a while to get it there, it was worth waiting for," said Richard Beeland, spokesman for the mayor's office.
* 2005 -- 15,454
* 2009 -- 20,143
Visits from women:
* 2005 -- 1,363
* 2009 -- 1,603
Visits from children:
* 2005 -- 520
* 2009 -- 822
Source: Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department
The Homeless Health Care Center opened in 1988 and provides routine primary care, including preventive and chronic disease care, case management, mental health, substance abuse evaluation and treatment, and other services to homeless people living in Chattanooga and Hamilton County.