Chattanooga wants to use federal COVID funds to build emergency homeless shelter

Staff photo by Troy Stolt / An excavator drops various items of clothing, tents, and mattresses belonging to residents of a homeless encampment located off of Workman Road on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Mayor Andy Berke wants to use federal coronavirus stimulus funding to create a low-barrier homeless shelter in Chattanooga.

At a virtual meeting Tuesday, the mayor's office presented a plan to the City Council to use more than $1 million to establish a low-barrier homeless shelter - emergency temporary housing that limits the conditions imposed for people to get shelter.

The money would come from Round 2 federal community development block grant funding, provided through the Department of Housing and Urban Development in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

According to a news release from Berke's office, the proposal comes after "the federal government has failed to act for more than 200 days to provide additional relief to families or local governments that are struggling because of the pandemic."

"Hotels are the safest, quickest option for emergency shelter during COVID-19, but the costs add up," said Tyler Yount, Berke's director of special projects. "Using these resources to purchase a hotel could mean more efficient use of our long-term funding, more nimbly responding to the ongoing effects of the pandemic and increasing the speed at which we can get more people permanently housed."

In a presentation to council members during an agenda session on Tuesday, Yount said that the city had experienced an increased need for non-congregant housing due to the virus and is anticipating a greater need when evictions paused by the state resume.

To accommodate those in need, the city has been housing some homeless individuals in hotels, which is not a financially sound plan. According to Yount, housing just 30 homeless people in hotels for a year can cost over $600,000 and make access to existing resources more difficult for those in need.

"That's probably the lowest cost we can possibly get," Yount said. "Not to mention all of the other services you need to provide to somebody who is in a hotel with no access to anything. They need food, they need services so we can get them quickly out of that hotel and into permanent housing.

"So it seemed to make sense to us to purchase a building like this to both respond to COVID-19 - some of the shelter situations we need to take care of and keep people safe - but also something we could use as a longer-term emergency shelter for our community."

The Chattanooga Interagency Council on Homelessness named creating such a shelter as a "key priority" in its 2018 Homelessness Action Plan.

According to the release, the administration will now use a contracted real estate agent to search for an appropriate property that fits the project needs and budget and the city would eventually contract with a nonprofit organization to manage the property on an annual basis to provide grounds maintenance, cleaning services and help with residents' daily needs. City Homeless Services staff would then begin the process of moving people out of the shelter and into permanent housing.

Yount said Tuesday that the Community Kitchen, a nonprofit organization providing food and other homeless assistance on 11th Street, has expressed interest in managing the shelter, but that the city will consider the best options.

"We will put out [a request] and get proposals," he said. "It'll be a competitive process. I imagine we will have a few different local agencies that want to do this."

According to Yount, the city hopes to identify a prospective property by early 2021 and the facility could be ready for occupancy as soon as the summer of 2021.

The proposal was met with enthusiasm by council members, who will have to approve the project at a future meeting.

"Great work, Tyler," District 2 Commissioner Jerry Mitchell said. "I have been griping about this for a while."

"I'm very glad to see that this came down through the federal government and I'm very glad to see that they are providing the flexibility for us to do this," District 4 Councilman Darrin Ledford said.

One council member said he was worried about the size of the shelter, saying he felt the city needed closer to 100 or 150 beds.

(READ MORE: Homeless Chattanoogans removed from decades-old encampment as some say they got no notice)

"I think it is a wonderful idea and I wish we had this low-barrier shelter in place," District 8 Councilman Anthony Byrd said. "I do have some concerns about those 20 rooms it's a very small dent in the big scheme of things, but it's a start."

Yount said that even getting some homeless individuals into a temporary shelter will help the city's workflow of finding permanent housing by simply being able to consistently locate those in need.

"I would love that, councilman, if we got more rooms. It's more money, what that boils down to," Yount said, adding that a preliminary check suggested the available funds could only afford 10 to 20 rooms. "If we get more money, we'll buy something bigger. We know it's a drop in the bucket of what we need."

This is a developing story. Stay with the Times Free Press for updates.