More than 100 homeless Chattanoogans are back on the streets tonight after the Chattanooga Community Kitchen closed its winter shelter service two weeks earlier than expected.
Overnight housing at the kitchen opened last November to keep people from sleeping outside in the freezing temperatures and was the only option for an emergency shelter in the area, officials said at the time.
But the shelter is being closed early, officials said, because the weather has warmed, and the 115 or so residents who stay each night need to be pushed out to look for work.
Case workers were worried about a handful of seriously disabled individuals, but they were placed in other housing this week, said Charlie Hughes, executive director of the Chattanooga Community Kitchen.
"We aren't saving lives staying open," he said. "It's uncomfortable [for them to leave], but it's not dangerous. Sometimes being uncomfortable is a motivating thing."
Also, since funding for homeless shelter has been hard to come by, Hughes said, they want to save what resources they have left for any bad weather coming this spring. If homeless camps are flooded because of heavy rains or if more tornadoes threaten the area, the Community Kitchen needs to be able to take people in, he said.
Workers told residents several days ago that the shelter's last night would be Wednesday, but people lingering outside the Community Kitchen said they aren't ready to move on. Several groups stood smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and talking about how to make it through the next few nights.
Bernadette Robert, a 38-year-old who is five months pregnant, sat among bags of her belongings. As blooms from the Bradford pears that lined the street snowed all around her, she said she hoped to get a referral to a women's shelter program that isn't already full.
Several others said they have no idea what to do because they hadn't expected to move to a new place until April 1.
"It's just not right," said Lisa, a 53-year-old on crutches who wouldn't give her last name. "We had made arrangements to get an apartment. Now they just don't give a crap."
Hughes said he doesn't want people to look the Community Kitchen as the solution to the void of emergency shelters in the area. His nonprofit is in the business of getting people out of homelessness; offering housing can send a conflicting message, he said.
His group plans to use research conducted this winter on homeless needs to start a conversation among nonprofits, case workers and donors. From that conversation, local agencies will be able to more clearly see the way forward, he said.
"We are conflicted, but we have got to look at the overall," he said. "Instead of putting a Band Aid on it, let's suture the wound and fix it."