Marla Walls worked as a billing clerk for more than a year before arthritis pain struck her legs so badly she could no longer do her job. Two months of unemployment rendered the 53-year-old mother and her teenage son homeless this year.
Walls spent her last dollar paying for a room at the Country Hearth Inn after being evicted from her Highland Park home. On the day her money ran out, an opening came up at the Maclellan Shelter for Families.
If you go
› What: 16th annual Grateful Gobbler Walk› When: 8 a.m. Thanksgiving Day› Where: Starts in Coolidge Park› Why: To fund the Maclellan Shelter for Families and assist homeless families› To register: Go to www.gratefulgobblerwalk.org
"I knew God was going to take care of things," Walls said.
After staying in the shelter, Walls eventually got a job as an accounts payable clerk at Electric Motor Sales on Central Avenue and landed a spot in a transitional housing program for working families.
She and her son are among dozens of families finding shelter at Maclellan this year. It's the city's only year-round emergency shelter accepting families - including men, women and children - on the very night they become homeless. The shelter marks its one-year anniversary in December.
More than two dozen shelters are listed in some local shelter directories. Some take single adults. Some take women and children, but not mothers with older sons and fathers. That's where Maclellan fills the gap.
"A year ago today, we had nowhere to go for families seeking shelter at night," said Jens Christensen, executive director of the Chattanooga Community Kitchen, which operates and staffs the Maclellan Shelter for Families. "This year, we've had 85 families including 100 adults and 175 children."
Among those the shelter served were some of the 300 families abruptly rendered homeless in September when East Ridge city officials condemned buildings at Superior Creek Lodge.
Maclellan Foundation officials say they're on a mandate from God to help.
The roots of the Maclellan Foundation, which funds the shelter, trace back to Thomas Maclellan, a Canadian who came to Chattanooga in the late 1800s. He bought half of Provident Life and Insurance Co., the precursor to the Chattanooga-based Fortune 500 company Unum Group. Maclellan was dedicated to serving poor families, so much so that his insurance company became one of the first to provide disability and life insurance to people working in the coal mines, saw mills and blast furnaces of the area.
His daughter, Dora Maclellan Brown, continued her father's commitment to serve the poor and established the Maclellan Foundation in 1945.
The foundation is Christian-based, but it puts no faith requirements on any family who needs shelter. The only restriction is for people who have recent violent felony and domestic violence convictions, Christensen said.
"The leaders of the foundation decided to be more intentional with the widows, orphans and homeless families in our midst," said Chris Maclellan, a Maclellan Foundation trustee. "We are compelled by the biblical mandate to care for those that are without a covering in our community."
The foundation wants to equip homeless families to be self sufficient, and getting them off the streets is the first step, Maclellan said.
"As we believe that God has prepared a place for us in heaven," he said, "we want to reflect that here on Earth by helping prepare a place for those most in need."
Within the past year, the foundation put nearly $700,000 in its effort to build a shelter and provide for homeless families. Of that, $600,000 went to build the shelter on East 11th Street next to the Community Kitchen in summer 2014. This year, it is spending another $12,000 to host the 16th annual Grateful Gobbler Walk, and all money raised from the walk will be used to fund the Maclellan shelter. Gobbler organizers want to raise $260,000.
The foundation also gave another $68,000 to partially fund a housing navigator position at the Chattanooga Housing Authority. The navigator's job is to connect people with Housing Choice vouchers to landlords willing to lease to them. Before the navigator, fewer than half the people with vouchers found housing, and the position is aimed at greatly improving that ratio.
The Maclellan Shelter for Families includes 13 family rooms and a total of 65 beds - five beds to a room. It also has 20 portable cribs for infants.
As many as 50 children have stayed in the shelter on one night. However, the demand for housing is still greater than space available.
The biggest need, however, isn't more shelter space, Christensen said.
"The biggest need we have now is for more permanent housing options," he said.
Residents stay an average of 50 nights at Maclellan. Shelter officials want to cut that time in half, but that's not possible unless more permanent housing comes available.
Walls said more assistance also is needed for people who get housing vouchers.
The Chattanooga Housing Authority gives 150 vouchers a year to people who are homeless.
Walls had a voucher, but remained homeless because she had no transportation to find a house, nor did she have money to go house hunting on the city bus. Her voucher eventually expired.
Kathy Long is case manager of the Chattanooga Community Kitchen's Family Housing and Learning Center where Walls now resides. The center allows families to live there for up to two years while case workers help them become self-sufficient. The ultimate goal is home ownership.
Long is trying to help Walls get a voucher again. If Long is successful, she promises to take Walls to look for a house, she said.
"I just feel like they deserve a break," she said of homeless families. "We want them to be successful."
Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at email@example.com or 423-757-6431.