Homelessness across Southeast Tennessee is surging for the second straight year, with particularly high jumps in Hamilton and Bradley counties, according to data released Friday by the Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition.
The data, gathered during the annual point-in-time count of area homeless people, showed a 153% increase in homelessness across an 11-county region that includes Franklin, Grundy, Marion, Sequatchie, Hamilton, Bledsoe, Rhea, Meigs, McMinn, Bradley and Polk counties.
Between 2021 and 2022, the number of people experiencing homelessness in the region increased from 1,217 to 3,084.
The number of people experiencing homelessness in Hamilton County has increased by 177% since 2021, moving from 364 to 1,008. The county saw a similar, though lesser, spike between 2020 and 2021, when homelessness increased by 81%.
Advocates working on the issue told the Chattanooga Times Free Press the bigger the issue becomes, the harder it will be to solve and the impact of resources will diminish.
Wendy Winters, executive director of the Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition, said surging rent prices are pushing people out of their homes or making living in Chattanooga inaccessible.
The coalition received grant money in recent years to help ease the burden and incentivize landlords to rent to low-income people or those struggling with homelessness. But the coalition ran into dual problems - wariness from landlords to rent to some people and low availability of housing stock in the area.
"The market is such that it's just difficult for us to compete, even when we were able to do things to incentivize landlords, like double deposits and sign-on bonuses," Winters said. "We consistently got outbid."
The new data shows jumps in specific populations across the region, such as among women which increased by 387% and among people between ages 18 and 24 which increased by 207%. Black people in the region experienced a 386% increase in homelessness, according to the report.
Winters said the data underlines what workers have been seeing anecdotally, specifically more women living unsheltered or in unstable housing situations.
The coalition will use this data to help create targeted programs to address the problem holistically and among certain subgroups, Winters said.
Last year, the homeless coalition received a more than $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to address youth homelessness. Similarly, in 2020, the coalition received a $2.5 million grant from the state, made possible by money from federal COVID-19 relief funds.
With the surge in need over the past two years, even the large grants were stretched thin, Winters said.
"With that kind of money, with the numbers we had previous to COVID, we could've housed everyone," she said. "But as the realization set in about how bad the affordable housing crisis is, it became clear that we wouldn't be ending homelessness. We thought we could maybe end homelessness for subpopulations, like women and children."
Alexa LeBoeuf, president of Cosette Consulting which is involved in the local Eviction Prevention Initiative, said the time is now to address the problem. She pointed out the rising rate of outside investors buying rental properties as another factor driving up housing costs as wages stagnate.
"The more that these numbers increase, the harder the problem becomes to solve, especially when it reaches crisis level," she said.
LeBoeuf said she is encouraged by efforts across the city, from government and other groups, to address the issue.
Ellis Smith, director of special projects for the city of Chattanooga, said the city is working on several short- and long-term projects to address the issue.
In March, Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly announced plans for a $100 million affordable housing initiative over five years, which includes $33 million in seed money from the city. The project will involve public-private partnerships with nonprofits, banks and other groups to expand the offerings of affordable housing.
Smith said the city estimates there to be a roughly 5,000-unit housing gap in terms of affordability in Chattanooga. The City Council is also looking at efforts to curb non-owner-occupied short-term rentals.
The city expects to formally launch a supervised homeless encampment on 12th Street before the end of May, Smith said.
"We know we have a long way to go, but we are laser-focused on this issue," Smith told the Times Free Press by phone Friday afternoon.
Between June 2020 and November 2021, the city's Eviction Prevention Initiative helped 184 households, which include 400 individuals and 220 children, stay in their homes.
The program, launched as a pilot in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, received $500,000 from the city in September 2021.
In a quarterly report presentation to the council last month, the program said about 64% of those helped in the county were Black, despite Black residents making up 19% of the county's overall population.
The report showed local eviction filings in the first months of 2022 were returning to pre-pandemic rates as the federal eviction moratorium ended in August 2021. Data from the program showed the importance of tenants having legal representation in eviction proceedings - 71% of cases resulted in money judgment evictions when a lawyer was not present, compared to dismissals or non-suits resulting in 69% of cases when the tenant had an attorney.
Woodson Carpenter, communications and engagement coordinator for the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga, said the number of people the eviction program helped and the rising rate of homelessness show the countywide conversation about affordability must continue.
"What's at the root of a lot of this is watching these housing prices, whether it be the price of homes or the cost of mortgages or the cost of rent," Carpenter said. "We also see that wages are lagging behind. As these prices continue to rise and wages lag behind, that's a problem, really, for all of us and especially for the most vulnerable in our community."
Many of these issues were present before the start of the pandemic nearly two and half years ago, but they were made worse with COVID-19, he said.
"We don't have complete control of the macroeconomic environment, but we can be responsive and we can be ready for whatever changes await us," Carpenter said.