Cook: Anything but poverty

Cook: Anything but poverty

May 24th, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

The strip mall was like any other: a manicurist, a shoe shop or Laundromat, some empty storefronts with "For Lease" signs in their windows. It was surrounded by asphalt Hamilton County: four-lane roads, fast food and red lights.

Behind the strip mall were some woods. And in the little sliver of alley between the back of the strip mall and the woods sat a tent.

Inside the tent was a mattress. A blanket. A pillow.

It was someone's home.

Nearby, their garden. Maybe four feet by two, cobbled together from scrap wood from who knows where, the garden had some onions, thin lettuce about to burn in the May sun and a few tomato plants.

The man who lived there, I was told, was a senior citizen, and couldn't read very well. Before living in the tent, he had slept in unlocked storage sheds. Sneaking in at night, leaving before the sun came up.

Imagine it.

This is life in the other Chattanooga, the hidden one not named to the List of Best Places to Live.

In this other Chattanooga, tornadoes strike all the time.

"The post-traumatic stress you see in Oklahoma after the tornado hit? It happens here too," another homeless man said.

This guy? Sleeps in his van. Parks it near whatever spare electrical outlet he can find to power his fan in the summer and little heater in the winter. His shoes? Holes in them. His shirt? Stained. And borrowed. He doesn't even own the shirt off his back.

The suddenness of the tornado -- your house was there in the morning, gone by the evening -- is different from the ongoing grind of poverty. But both produce a growing anxiety, jittery sadness and huge sense of loss deep in your bones.

"It's continuing and ongoing, whether you're a victim of eviction, foreclosure, housing fire, tornado. The net affect is the same," the man said.

Earlier this week, the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies released its 2013 State of the Chattanooga Region Health Report. At its core, the report says two things.

If you're wealthy, things are fine.

If you're not, things are bad. And getting worse.

But you know this. I could list every statistic in the report, but you already know it. I do, too.

So why is the storm here still spinning?

"From over here on the front lines, it feels like it's an intentional nonmovement. Anything but poverty," said Becky Whelchel, executive director of Metropolitan Ministries on McCallie Avenue. "It's very difficult to get traction for the simplest things that would help poor people."

Outside her office, poor people line up hours before the sun rises, trying to be first in line to obtain services for the day. A light bill paid. Help with groceries. Anything.

"You ever been in a place in your life when you could see the whole house of cards was about to come down?" she said. "A lot of our clients are like that. They're on the verge of everything falling apart."

For all our hipness and tourism and Best City superlatives, we don't even have a year-round homeless shelter in this city.

(I once told an out-of-town friend that. She was shocked. Couldn't believe it. Thought I was lying.)

And we're seeing poverty strike hard not just in the stereotypical urban core, but in the outlying suburbs.

And we're about to turn downtown housing into something only afforded by the rich.

"We're interested in having really cool places and microbreweries and making places where poor people used to live delightful for everybody but them," said Whelchel. "Inviting, for everybody but them."

At what point do we begin to take these issues seriously as a city and county? How does it happen? Who leads it?

Will a movement ever really form here?

Or will we just continue to look the other way, and pretend the sky is not falling?

"What do you do to elicit a change of heart?" Whelchel asked.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.