Cold hard facts

Cold hard facts

January 12th, 2014 in Opinion Times

Andrew Little, a former barge tank worker and roofer who says he became homeless after he fell off a roof and broke his arm, seeks help in 2013

Photo by Doug Strickland/Times Free Press.

THE NUMBERS

Each year in January, Chattanooga regional community conducts what's called a "point in time homeless count" - along with hundreds of other cities in the nation. This year's count comes later this month. Since 2007, Chattanooga's homeless have dropped, but in recent years the number is trending up again.

Year // Total homeless // Total sheltered // Total unsheltered

2007 // 1,064 // 307 // 757

2008 // 87 // 72 // 15

2009 // 513 // 306 // 207

2010 // 622 // 323 // 299

2011 // 561 // 334 // 227

2012 // 548 // 374 // 174

2013 // 591 // 422 // 169

Last week's brutal cold crystallized the frozen state of Chattanooga's homeless assistance.

Frozen, or at least brittle, seems to be where we are with what was, until recently, an ambitious effort over the past decade. That effort, beginning in 2003 under Mayor Bob Corker and continuing with Mayor Ron Littlefield, was dubbed the "Blueprint to End Chronic Homelessness in the Chattanooga Region in 10 Years."

Chattanooga was even heralded in a 2012 report of the United States Inter-agency Council on Homelessness as a model of success in the war on homelessness: "Chattanooga, Tennessee, for example, reports a stunning 89 percent reduction in chronic homelessness since 2007, and a 48 percent reduction in homelessness overall during that same period," the report states.

But here we are at the start of 2014 and the very agency created to chronicle needs and coordinate what has over time totaled about $20 million in various local, state, federal and charity services and fixes - the Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition - was standing last week in front of the Chattanooga City Council begging for a $50,000 emergency amendment to the city's budget to pay for a homeless shelter from the cold.

The failing was not a political one. Despite some incorrect earlier reports, the funding for the homeless coalition was not cut by the Berke Administration. Rather, the coalition last summer let the 2014 budget request deadline come and go without making a request for money that, in the previous year, had paid for overnight cots and security at the Community Kitchen. The need - along with the homeless - just got left out in the cold, quite literally, while the coalition board members and its new director got lost in their own confusion of transitions and fiscal foul-ups.

Suffice it to say Chattanooga has not ended chronic homelessness. There is never a shortage of people walking on 11th Street with blankets and suitcases as they move between downtown and the Community Kitchen. And fixing homelessness is not as simple as a cot. It requires a home and plenty of wrap-around support - like a job - to keep it. Cots are the cheap part.

The 200 homeless shelter beds the city had two years ago has dwindled to 60. And the housing vouchers federal officials once allowed to be prioritized for the homeless and managed by the Chattanooga Housing Authority have all but dried up.

In fairness, actually ending chronic homelessness is probably about as plausible as ending mental illness. And it's a given that a slowly recovering recession economy would put more stress on any program. Every year, 400 people in the Chattanooga region lose their homes and enter the homelessness system, according to the coalition.

But the point of the Blueprint was to put in place a social safety net that, through tracking homeless service points, planning, prioritizing and budgeting, social workers could ultimately better help the homeless and save money by carefully coordinating services and pointing homeless people and families into streamlined services. In 2007, officials with the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness said the average taxpayer cost of just one homeless person across the nation ranges from $35,000 to $150,000 a year.

Yet, at this point, this coalition couldn't even coordinate its own budget request, even though the new director had previously been a board member and he and several other staffers knew the ropes. The group was in turmoil after a management dispute ended with the resignation of the previous director. Her vacancy left the agency unable to pull down federal operational funds. Later, allegations of money mishandling arose when other staff used Grateful Gobbler fundraising money (pledged dollar for dollar as direct help to the homeless) to pay coalition overhead expenses.

At the least, the whole episode raises concerns, not just about whether people freeze on the streets, but also about the veracity of the numbers used to plan and justify tax dollars, donations and volunteer services.

Thankfully, Andy Berke and the city council approved the $50,000 emergency request, but they also appropriately chided the coalition and new director Stephen Wright. And they challenged themselves and city residents to open a conversation about better ideas.

One portion of the homeless safety-net that seems to work like clockwork is actually one of the cheapest from the public funding standpoint. Family Promise, formerly called the Interfaith Hospitality Network, is run by Mary Ellen Galloway who coordinates 28 churches which take turns providing week-long stays in their own chapel basements and classrooms for homeless families with children. Another 23 churches provide support meals and volunteer staff for the temporary quarters. Each year, more than 5,000 volunteers provide $637,000 in donated labor, leveraging three times the current annual budget.

Last year, the network of congregations took in 75 families (including 89 adults and 159 children). Families account for between 35 and 45 percent of the homeless population, according to Galloway, and the network needs more volunteer parishes and synagogues.

Certainly no one should think the problem of homelessness will get better - let alone go away - anytime soon. Our Congress is poised to cut food stamps, and 1.3 million Americans lost extended unemployment benefits after Christmas. Meanwhile, homeless help funding, actually social services help of any kind, is becoming harder and harder to come by. Funders want outcomes - that new buzzword that's supposed to show instant payback and justification for expenditure.

Of course, some outcomes are harder to count than shelter beds vs. jail stays, or a bus ride to a job application site: There really isn't a check box for a person not frozen to death. But there also is another kind of bottom line: People are homeless - some just for a few weeks, some for months and years on end. We need to ensure that our efforts go toward them, not toward propagating bureaucratic number games.