The Chattanooga Community Kitchen used to send homeless people away as night was coming, unable to give any answers on where they could sleep.
"So people stay in abandoned buildings and under awnings," said case manager Cindia Williams, who stops talking to hold back tears. "It's devastating to look at women or men with small children and say, 'I'm sorry. There really is nowhere for you to go.'"
But in November, homeless people got another option. The Community Kitchen started operating an emergency shelter and plans to continue through the cold weather season until March 31. It's the first time in its nearly 30-year history that the kitchen has operated as an emergency shelter.
"It's a great idea," said Richard Beeland, spokesman for Mayor Ron Littlefield. "The mayor has said all along that the city needs something like that, although he has never proposed building it."
Kitchen officials say the need is obvious, but what they're offering is just the bare basics.
"There are no programs, no access to computers. We're talking the core, most rudimentary shelter available," said Jens Christensen, the Kitchen's assistant director. "A pallet on the floor and a safe place to be out of the weather. You don't get the case manager services that we offer during the day. So the people staying here are folks who would be outside otherwise."
On average about 120 people a night sleep at the Kitchen, Christensen said.
Chattanooga provided the mats for the Kitchen's shelter and the Union Gospel Mission provides extra staff. Kitchen staff are learning and developing rules and a budget for the shelter as they go. The operating cost for mat and blanket, electricity and utilities is about $300 per night said Christensen.
The kitchen and the 60-bed Chattanooga Rescue Mission on Holtzclaw Avenue are the only emergency shelters in Chattanooga.
About 34 of the 46 beds available for men at the Rescue Mission have been filled and most of the 14 beds for women have been occupied each night in December, said Donald Baer, the Mission's director. He expects the shelter to fill as the weather gets colder.
Charles Partridge, 56, who has lived outdoors off and on for 15 years, calls the Community Kitchen a paradise and has slept there every night since it the emergency shelter has been open.
"It's like heaven," he said Tuesday while sitting in the shelter after eating lunch. "It's a whole lot better than sleeping outside. Better than empty houses or sleeping under bridges."
About 335 people have stayed overnight at the kitchen since Nov. 1, said Christensen. They've been mostly males and have ranged from 8 months to 75 years old, he said, while females who have stayed there ranged between 7 and 69 years old. And there have been five families, he said.
By the numbers
Source: Community Kitchen
The "compassion driving this" is to keep people safe at night when it's freezing cold outside to the point of death, Christensen said.
At least one man died in Chattanooga because of the cold in 2010, said Brother Ron Fender, the Kitchen's outreach case manager. The man was found just after Christmas near a downtown railroad track.
"At least for this winter we know there is no reason for anyone to freeze to death," Fender said. "We feel we're saving lives. People who would otherwise be on the streets have a warm safe place to lay their heads."
Kitchen officials opened the 24-hour shelter this year to avoid problems that came in the past with opening the center only sporadically during inclement weather.
Case managers who were supposed to operate day programs were having to stay up all night with no warning. And because decisions for the kitchen to remain open at night were usually made at 10 a.m. or 11 a.m. the same morning, adequate staff was not always available.
"It was a strain," said the Kitchen's Executive Director Charlie Hughes. "This way we don't have to make a decision. We're going to open no matter what and we're using the data so by next spring, we won't say we think there is a need for a shelter, we'll say here are the numbers, the names of the people."