Cook: The last night in the life of Jeff Whitaker

Cook: The last night in the life of Jeff Whitaker

July 17th, 2011 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

One week ago, a body was found in a tent beside the railroad tracks on East 12th Street. The man, who was homeless, was identified by friends and Community Kitchen employees as Jeff Whitaker.

They say he was a quiet man, soft-spoken and well-liked. As word of his death traveled through the homeless community last Monday, people who knew him responded with shock, silence and sadness.

"Oh no, not Jeff," one passer-by said. "I just saw him yesterday."

Around 4 p.m. the day before - the last yesterday in his life - Whitaker checked into the Chattanooga Rescue Mission for the night and followed the normal procedure that includes a required chapel service, dinner and lights out.

Yet according to eyewitnesses, sometime between 8 and 9 p.m., Whitaker was kicked out of the mission.

His crime?

He used his cellphone.

So goes the story told by two witnesses who were with him during his last night at the mission, a locally funded shelter on Holtzclaw Avenue and Main Street that accepts 44 men and 16 women each night - as long as certain rules are followed.

"I was incarcerated for 23 years and, when I stayed there, I felt like I was still incarcerated," said Mike Woodall, 43. "They kicked one guy out for falling asleep during chapel. They have a policy stating you are not allowed to leave the chapel service to use the bathroom.

"They don't have a wheelchair ramp and no handicap accessibility. It's bad, a real bad place over there."

One man told the story of having dinner withheld until someone "was saved" during an altar call in the chapel service. Another man - identifying himself as Michael Mac - said he'd sooner risk his life than sleep there.

"I'd rather sleep in the turn lane on McCallie Avenue than ever go back there," he said.

Whitaker was put out of the mission when, according to witnesses, he broke cellphone policy.

One witness said Whitaker used his phone to call his boss, but Whitaker's best friend refutes that.

"He did not have a job," said Jerry Lawson, his friend of 15 years and former co-worker at American Manufacturing. "The way I understand it, his cellphone was charged, and the rule is no electronics at all."

At some point after leaving, Whitaker found a place to sleep in the tent near East 12th Street and died there. Medical reports on the cause of his death were unavailable as of Friday, and friends claim he never used drugs or drank.

"No, no," said Lawson. "He was sober. I know that for a fact. I saw him the other day so drowsy he fell asleep eating. He had been complaining about his stomach."

I called the mission, and spoke briefly with its director, Don Baer.

"I can't talk about that," he said. "For privacy purposes, I can't discuss anybody that has been here.

"There are policies that exist to help our services run well. In chapel services, we want to have control and not have interruptions. Certain things exist for those purposes."

Baer invited me to come to the mission and speak with him personally, then later called to say he no longer wished to be interviewed for this column.

The mission, started in 1975, claims on its website to have served 34,000 meals last year to homeless Chattanoogans. It's one of few places where homeless men, women and children can stay in our city.

That's why writing this is so difficult.

Jesus said to love the least of these, and running a homeless shelter with open hands yet sturdy rules is tough work.

I hope Baer can refute every single one of these claims from people who have stayed at his shelter. I hope people come out of the woodwork claiming the mission is one of the most decent, compassionate, bend-over-backwards loving places in town.

I also wish Jeff Whitaker - who had friends, family and was no less important than anyone else in this city - was still alive.

David Cook can be reached at