City officials and social services advocates agree that Chattanooga needs to offer more emergency shelter for the homeless, but no agency has the money to do it.
The Salvation Army estimates it would take about $2 million to build a 50-bed emergency shelter and $250,000 annually to operate it. The agency has the land on which to build a shelter but doesn't have the money, spokeswoman Kimberly George said.
Jon Rector, executive director of the Union Gospel Mission, said he has the beds and the manpower to operate a 100-bed emergency shelter, but he, too, has no money for a building.
Meanwhile the supply of emergency beds is shrinking, and need is rising.
The city has lost more than a third of its emergency shelter beds in the last three years, said officials with the Chattanooga Homeless Coalition.
"The need is huge," said Charlie Hughes, executive director of the Chattanooga Community Kitchen. "Now we're worried about the summer when the heat gets here. The problem is the toll it takes on individuals being in the humidity night after night. Sleep deprivation is horrible."
Since 2008 the number of emergency shelter beds for individuals dropped from 192 to 129, and the number of beds for families decreased from 83 to 44.
The decrease comes as the Chattanooga Homeless Coalition reported a 51 percent increase in the number of homeless families counted in the area's point in time survey this year. About 55 homeless families were counted this year compared with 27 in 2010.
The city lost 100 emergency shelter beds when Union Gospel Mission ended its emergency shelter ministry in the summer of 2009, said Rector.
"One hundred beds would be filled tonight if we could make them available," Rector said.
The Community Kitchen isn't an emergency shelter but operated as one for 29 days over the winter because there was no other place for homeless people to go, said Hughes. About 100 people stayed each night the kitchen was open because of dangerous cold or other weather conditions.
Operating as a 24-hour facility strains the Community Kitchen's finances and manpower, Hughes said. Utility fees are up $120 to $150 more each night over the normal utility cost.
And then there's the toll on human resources, he said. Employees of the Union Gospel Mission help staff the facility and some Community Kitchen staff work extra, but working all night makes it hard for the staff and volunteers to do their regular tasks the following morning.With 60 beds, the Chattanooga Rescue Mission is the largest emergency shelter in town, officials said. Some homeless people may also be housed by churches in the Interfaith Homeless Network, and other agencies offer beds to people who meet specific criteria, but it's very hard to get in, said Diane Collins Jarvis, the United Way's 211 Resource Manager.
"It's always extremely difficult to get into a shelter because there's no room," she said. "I just talked with a single mom living in a car with three children for three weeks because she hasn't been able to find shelter."
Donald Baer, the Chattanooga Rescue Mission's director of administration and chaplaincy services, said his agency has been working with a structural engineer to prepare the Chattanooga Rescue Mission's third floor to hold shelter beds. The floor needs heat and air conditioning and other renovations.
If the mission can get money for the renovation, he said, the Rescue Mission will add more beds within the next two years.
But even if the mission's plans are successful, the expansion won't be enough to meet the need, Baer said.
"If we added another 50 to 100 beds, those would fill up also," Baer said. "We still could use another shelter."
The city says
Richard Beeland, spokesman for Mayor Ron Littlefield, said the mayor recognizes the need for a shelter and the city wants to participate in the effort, but providing a shelter is not the city's responsibility.
"We're not in the business of providing shelter for people on a full-time basis," Beeland said. "There are a lot of good organizations that exist that can do that and we would ask them to do that. ... There is just not enough support in the community for the city to do something like that."
It was March 2006 when the mayor persuaded the City Council to buy the nine-acre Farmers Market site for $775,000, according to news reports. Littlefield suggested that the site could be used for homeless services, but encountered opposition from residents in the M.L. King Neighborhood Association.
The property also had industrial contamination, and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation officials said it would have to be cleaned up to residential standards before a homeless shelter could be placed there.
In May 2007 the American Institute of Architects finalized a potential plan for the Farmers Market site to house a homeless complex, including overnight shelters and an intake processing center, according to news reports.
The City Council authorized a 40-year lease with the Interfaith Homeless Network on the site in November 2007 and approved the Southeast Tennessee Human Resource Agency putting a transportation and training center there in January 2008.
But the shelter part of the plan never came to fruition.