Cook: I smell a rat at Miller Park

Cook: I smell a rat at Miller Park

October 22nd, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

There are rats at Miller Park in downtown Chattanooga. There are homeless people there, as well.

We need to make sure we don't confuse the two.

A recent front-page story discussed the rat community at Miller Park, which, apparently, is fast and furious. Like fish stories -- the rats were this big -- folks spoke of rats that weren't afraid of people. Rats that run in packs. Rats that can jump several feet in the air.

Miller Park is their Shangri-La, with plenty of water from the small pond and plenty of food left over from the multiple groups that serve the homeless each week.

Nobody likes a rat. They carry disease and are regularly associated with plagues, sewer systems and Harry Potter villains. The city says it sets out baited poison regularly. Apparently not enough.

"The food source has got to be taken away," Bonnie Deakins, director of environmental health for Hamilton County, told reporter Yolanda Putman.

Uh-oh.

Here's my theory. I hope it's a poor one.

The rat problem will be used as a way to outlaw the practice of distributing free food in Miller Park. Doing so would reduce the rats, while also reducing the other unwanted population that congregates there: the homeless and urban poor.

If your goal is to sanitize the homeless from Miller Park, then this is your smokescreen, your Trojan rat. Ban groups from feeding -- under the guise of rat control -- and then homeless folks are run off in the process.

This is not a slight to Deakins, who is an ethical and sensible professional. It's not her I'm worried about, but rather the forces that can assemble in the halls of power in this city. In such a crowd, the needs of the homeless are not always top of the list.

Just consider what prime property Miller Park is, situated right in the middle of everything: City Hall, its hipper next-door neighbor Miller Plaza, swank restaurants, millionaire condos and the giant EPB building. Urban planners drool over such locations.

Yet the park is also downtown's last bastion of public poverty. Most people at the park don't have anywhere else to go, because everywhere else is for people with money, because everywhere else has become privatized.

The only places for poor people to go downtown are public ones (the library and the park). As a public space, Miller Park is infused with value and First Amendment meaning: we can freely assemble there as citizens. Our wallets ought to make zero difference on who gathers there.

But rats could.

"Nobody that I know of is trying to get us to stop," said the Rev. Barry Kidwell with Mustard Tree Ministry.

Every Wednesday, for nearly 12 years, Kidwell and friends have been coming to the park to serve food. (The lines have been quite long lately).

"We never leave anything," he said. "If we spill a bowl of soup, we wash it up. We pick up cigarette butts. We strive to leave it cleaner than when we came there."

More important than the food are the dynamics behind it. By serving, Kidwell forms friendships with people on the streets. He helps get them into treatment, housing, job opportunities, better living conditions.

"The park is a meeting place," he said.

Let's say my Trojan rat theory is nonsense. A larger question, especially with winter approaching, continues to gnaw: where are the hundreds of people without homes supposed to go each night?

"An integrity camp," said Will Wallace, board member with the Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition.

An integrity camp is a place of safety and community for individuals and families who have no home. Folks set up tents and settlements. There could be bathrooms, heaters and showers. Security guards working each night. Drinking and drugs would be prohibited. Outside agencies could come in with job opportunities, permanent housing and medicine.

"If the city would allow an integrity camp, that would pull all the homeless out from downtown. It would be some place not in front of all the tourists, but at the same time, it's a place for the homeless to go," he said.

Wallace, who was once homeless and now works alongside Kidwell, said an integrity camp could happen quickly if someone only would donate the money or land.

"There's money in Chattanooga. The question is: are people willing to let it go?" he said.

There are theories about that.

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