Tent city residents to be relocated from contaminated site [photos]

Malcolm Amicarelli, left, and Angie Wise live with her dog Romeo in a tent in a homeless encampment off of East 11th Street on Friday, March 30, 2018, in Chattanooga, Tenn. More than 100 people are now living in the city-owned lot behind the municipal wellness center, but officials are trying to remove residents because the land is a toxic brownfield. The Community Kitchen has re-opened its winter shelter temporarily for residents displaced from the camp, but Wise says she wouldn't be able to bring her emotional support dog with her if she stayed there.

Behind a city-owned wellness center in the 600 block of East 11th Street sits a once-vacant lot. But now about 100 homeless men and women have taken up residence there, setting up dozens of tents on the property, just down the road from the Chattanooga Community Kitchen.

City officials say the location offers easy access to support services through a handful of other nearby agencies, and people have been living there for months.

"A lot of folks go to the Community Kitchen on a daily basis for food, and there's showers and bathrooms," said Sam Wolfe, the city's homeless program coordinator.

The camp ballooned in size when the Community Kitchen closed its emergency cold- weather shelter and gave tents to the homeless.

"It really underscores our need for our community to have a plan to house people, because there are a lot of folks out there that need help and there are a lot of folks every year, historically, that when the cold-weather shelter gets closed, they're forced to relocate," Wolfe said.

Whatever their reasons for being there, the occupants are now a top priority for staff in Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke's office, which is working to move them off the site because it's still toxic after years of being used as a dump site for hazardous materials.

The area had been an operating quarry producing shale for bricks until about 1914 when workers encountered an aquifer and the quarry filled with water, according to a deed restriction provided by Berke's office to the Times Free Press.

Two years later, the city purchased the property and began accepting waste from a variety of local industries, including a nearby coal gasification plant, leading to contamination of the site with coal tar and foundry sand.

The hazard is severe enough that it was determined the site should "contain no permanent residences," according to a site work plan prepared between the city and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

Now the race is on to relocate the people who've come to call the lot home.

Stacy Richardson, Berke's chief of staff, said the Community Kitchen has agreed to reopen the cold-weather shelter for two weeks to facilitate the transition.

"We'll go out with some volunteers and caseworkers and start to tell people, 'This is what's on the site and these are precautions you should be taking," she said. "They shouldn't be disturbing the soil and there are some things that the sooner they know the better so that they can protect themselves.

"We'll start educating people about what's going to happen, and the day the shelter opens is the first day we'll start helping people move their belongings and get back into the shelter on April 6," she added.

The city will be making an emergency allocation to the Community Kitchen in order to help cover the costs of operating the shelter over those two weeks. It's unknown what the total cost of the effort will be, but officials estimated it will be less than $15,000.

In the meantime, Berke's office is coordinating with agencies including the Chattanooga Housing Authority and the Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition to connect current lot occupants with permanent housing.

It's difficult to pin down the exact number of people experiencing homelessness in Chattanooga on any given night, despite efforts by local agencies to perform annual head counts, but Wolfe said he believes the camp on East 11th Street represents about 10 percent of the total homeless population.

Connecting that many people with services is a challenge in and of itself, an effort that's complicated by the fact that so many homeless individuals are transient. People are constantly moving around the city or even in and out of homelessness.

"One of the things about homelessness that makes it very difficult is you have folks that will dip in and out of it but are still living in a kind of constant state of poverty," Wolfe said.

"There are people that live for years in housing and return to homelessness and come back, and there are others who are homeless for just a month and they get back on their feet and they never return to that situation again."

Transience and instability make it difficult for caseworkers to connect the homeless with services, but more importantly, it makes it difficult for people to climb out of poverty when they're spending all their time crossing town to get food or find a place to sleep.

Jens Christensen, CEO of the Community Kitchen, said people started settling on the property across the street for a couple of reasons, not the least of which is its proximity to resources.

"It's convenient, and a few people moved tents there and no one seemed to say anything. The overarching cause is that we lack adequate overnight shelter for the number of persons experiencing homelessness on any given night," he said.

Christensen said they operated the emergency shelter from Dec. 8, 2017, to March 11, 2018, but it's costly to maintain a 24/7 shelter at the capacity needed in Chattanooga. Over the course of four months, 584 people stayed in the shelter at an average rate of 102 people per night, he said. As winter ended, his staff started giving out tents to those who were going to find somewhere else to sleep.

"That's not what we consider an ideal situation by any means, but some shelter is far superior to no shelter at all. When there isn't alternative shelter, it is a temporary fix," Christensen said. "Fundamentally, the problem is a lack of adequate shelter."

With that many people living in unstable conditions, calls for emergency service at the Community Kitchen and along the stretch of road it occupies have kept first responders busy for years. The Chattanooga Police Department responded to more than 1,400 calls for service in the 700 block of East 11th Street alone over the last year for everything from overdoses to assaults.

The Economy Inn, a motel on Brainerd Road that was shut down temporarily last month by Hamilton County District Attorney General Neal Pinkston, was closed in part because Chattanooga police made more than 800 calls to the location in a little over two years. Presented with that evidence, a local judge signed off on a nuisance abatement petition stating the inn was to be closed until further order of the court.

However, Christensen said many of those calls for service came because the kitchen operates a phone bank that clients use to call authorities about crimes that happened elsewhere.

As for those who have found themselves setting up tents on the few patches of grass between concrete slabs on the 11th Street lot, there is no alternative shelter. Even toxic soil isn't necessarily a dealbreaker for them.

Dave Miller lives in a tent near the back end of the lot, about 20 feet away from his neighbors - a cluster of people living in tents identical to his own. He's thrown the outer lining of a sleeping bag over the top of his home to keep in heat and pinned down the corners with rocks.

He didn't know the land he was sleeping on used to be a landfill and is likely hazardous to his health, but said he'll be moving out before caseworkers come to help transition people to the Community Kitchen.

"It's a shame because I got everything set up down here. It's not the easiest, but you can make it work if you know what you're doing and you know where to go," he said.

Miller doesn't plan on taking advantage of whatever housing options the city may offer him next week because he prefers to be out on his own, but he hopes that others receive the help they need to get back on their feet.

"You can see it in people's eyes around here. Living down here gets hard on a person, but you just focus on making it to the next day," he said. "Now we need to pick everything up again and figure out what's next."

Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at egienapp@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6731. Follow him on Twitter @emmettgienapp.