Rhonda Harrison and her two children became homeless after her landlord went bankrupt and her East Chattanooga duplex was put up for auction.
"It wasn't even my fault," Harrison said.
In just three months, the 24-year-old went from working as a photographer to being laid off and forced from her home.
The unemployed single mother and her two children, 5-year-old Paradise and 3-year-old Junior Gains, are included in a 51 percent increase this year in the number of local families who were homeless at a single point in time - Jan. 27, according to the Chattanooga Homeless Coalition.
"We're seeing more first-time homeless families due to the economy with joblessness and increases in housing cost," said Mary Simons, the coalition's executive director. "The whole country is seeing an increase in family homelessness."
That's the largest increase in family homelessness recorded here since the point-in-time homeless count started in 2001, Simons said, and the most jarring finding in this year's results. The self-reported survey of area homeless people was conducted through the 11-county Southeast Tennessee region.
However, Mary Ellen Galloway, executive director of the Interfaith Homeless Network of Greater Chattanooga, said people should not think the total population of homeless people is included in the point-in-time count.
"It's a snapshot of homelessness," she said. "All we can do is walk around on foot or drive and try to find the homeless people. Sometimes they know about the count and they don't want to be counted, so they leave."
Among the other findings:
• The number of overall homeless decreased by 9.8 percent because of a decline in the number of chronically homeless individuals.
• Of the 561 people counted as homeless, 87 said they were chronically homeless, marking an 85 percent reduction in chronic homelessness since 2003.
• About 21 percent of the 561 homeless people counted had mental health problems, 12 percent had substance abuse problems and 17 percent had physical disabilities.
• About 12 percent of the homeless said they had experienced domestic violence.
• Fifty-five homeless families were counted, compared with 27 last year.
Families are even less visible because they stay tripled and doubled up on someone's sofa, she said. People with children often don't want to be counted because they are afraid the kids will be taken away if it's known that they have no place to live, Galloway said.
And there's concern that the number of homeless families in Chattanooga could rise again this year unless the Homeless Prevention and Repaid Rehousing program - a federal grant due to expire in September - is renewed.
The Chattanooga Homeless Coalition managed the two-year, $1.2 million federal grant, which was part of the federal stimulus package. In addition to assisting homeless people who are single, the money enabled 104 families to remain in their homes. The families included 125 adults and 169 children.
Money also was used to provide deposits and first month's rent for 20 families, including 25 adults and 31 children who were temporarily homeless, Simons said.
"The stimulus package was fantastic to help people stay in homes or get new homes," Simons said. "It gave us a boost, but we need to work as a community to help when the funds are no longer available."
where to go?
It was four days after Christmas when Harrison first found herself without a place to stay.
"I was stressed, just stressed out," said Harrison. "I had Christmas and two kids and I'm wondering where to go and how to get all my furniture in storage."
The bank that bought the duplex paid her $1,300 to move out, she said, but it would only release the money after she moved.
And she had little money of her own. She was laid off from her job in October, less than a month before getting the notice that her house was going up for auction. She had worked for a local photography company for more than two years before the layoff.
Harrison and her two children ended up staying with her sister for three nights before moving into a shelter operated by the Interfaith Homeless Network.
All the families counted in the Jan. 27 survey were in shelters at the time of the count, coalition officials said. Several homeless families who were not included in the count live with family members or friends, officials said.
The problem is that the shelters are always full, Simons said. So a family that suddenly finds itself homeless one day probably won't be able to find available shelter space that same night, she said.
Meanwhile, foreclosures are leaving more people without a roof over their heads.
Mildred Taylor, a case manager for Interfaith, said she talks to at least two families a month calling from Chattanooga and the North Georgia area who are homeless because of foreclosure on their homes.
FINDING A HOME
Harrison and her two preschoolers were homeless until Feb. 11, when Interfaith helped find them a two-bedroom apartment in Red Bank.
She's grateful for the help she has received through the network, which gave her and her children a temporary place to live, helped her with child care and provided activities for her children. She returns to Interfaith weekly to visit friends and attend classes.
"I came here [to Interfaith] with two mini-suitcases," Harrison said. "I left with an apartment, the suitcases and six garbage bags [full of clothes and toys]"
And even though she still faces challenges, including finding a job, having a place to live helps.
"I try to stay positive," she said. "I tell myself when you're down to nothing, God is up to something."
AVERAGE AGE FIGURE QUESTIONED
A series of newspaper ads appearing in the Chattanooga Times Free Press and elsewhere in recent months proclaimed that the average age of a homeless person in the Tennessee Valley is now 9.
But there's some question about whether that assertion - used in ads sponsored by the national Salvation Army - is accurate.
The number has been challenged nationally, and Chattanooga Homeless Coalition officials say they don't have numbers to support an average age of 9. However, they explained that the average age of homeless people depends on what population is counted.
Among those who are chronically homeless, the average person is probably a male in his mid-50s, officials say.
But among families, the average age could be that of a minor because there are usually two or three children who are homeless for every adult, said Mary Simons, the coalition's executive director.
Officials with the Interfaith Homeless Network of Greater Chattanooga said the 9-year-old reference isn't far-fetched if the population counted is homeless families.
"That's not unbelievable; you see how many kids we've had," said Doretha Saunders, case manager over centralized intake at Interfaith.
In all of 2010, the network assisted 463 homeless families, she said. Those families included 564 adults and 1,002 children.