Chattanooga officials, groups see need for more supportive housing to combat homelessness

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Tents line an empty asphalt lot at the homeless camp at the intersection of 12th Street and Peeples Street on Friday, October 28, 2022.
Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Tents line an empty asphalt lot at the homeless camp at the intersection of 12th Street and Peeples Street on Friday, October 28, 2022.

Sitting in a foldout chair in the afternoon sun, Wendell Gullion recalls the circumstances that resulted in him becoming homeless: Police arrested him for alleged criminal trespass after he attempted to return to the home from which he had been evicted.

"I spent three months in jail -- basically on purpose," he told the Chattanooga Times Free Press. "I did it to have a place to be. I told them I wanted a trial hearing to prolong being in jail because at least in jail I was warm and had food."

After his release, Gullion lived outside before hearing about a gated campsite that had popped up with support from the city of Chattanooga. Other people Gullion knew on the street were initially wary of staying there, taking note of the fence that ringed the complex, but Gullion wasn't deterred. He was tired of sleeping in bus stops or wherever was comfortable enough to rest his head.

"I was in the military," he said. "I ran businesses for 24 years. I'm used to rules and regulations."

As of late October, Gullion had lived in the camp at the corner of Peeples and East 12th streets for several months, and he said it's an improvement over his situation outside. He has a tent, an air mattress, access to a kitchen and doesn't have to worry about being locked out of the bathroom after 5 p.m.

With winter approaching, organizers say everyone at the camp has blankets, and they're in the process of upgrading their electrical systems to ensure there's enough capacity for everyone to have access to a heater. They've also received a donation of 30 sleeping bags.

"I like it here," Gullion said. "There's good people here, and I'm sure there's bad people. I haven't run into any."

The camp is one of a patchwork of different initiatives Chattanooga officials are looking to as they work to combat homelessness, which skyrocketed during the pandemic.

According to the Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition, the number of people without shelter in Hamilton County increased from 364 in January 2021 to 1,008 in January 2022, representing a spike of 177%. In the 11-county region, that number increased from 1,217 to 3,084 people.

SUPPORTIVE HOUSING

Mike Smith, the executive director of the Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition, believes economic shutdowns coupled with a rise in rents spurred much of that jump.

"The rent increase was historic," Smith said.

Much of the city's recent focus has been on converting the Airport Inn at 7725 Lee Highway into more than 70 units of permanent supportive housing, an undertaking that has attracted pushback from neighbors and support from local homeless services organizations. It's an initiative city officials hope will act as a model for similar housing projects in other parts of Chattanooga.

"At the end of the day, Chattanooga's main challenge in solving homelessness is we don't have the permanent supportive housing units that we know keep people housed," Joda Thongnopnua, Mayor Tim Kelly's chief of staff, said in an October interview. "From the beginning, that has been a core goal for us -- to figure out how we can increase the capacity of our overall housing stock."

Chattanooga bought the Airport Inn in 2021 for $2.79 million, and the City Council recently approved a request to rezone the land for the purpose of developing the property. The mayor's office has already said it's committed to prohibiting violent felons and sex offenders from residing at the facility. City officials also plan to establish a no-camping buffer around the site and offer a dial-a-ride transit service at the converted motel.

Although the number fluctuates, Smith estimated in November that there are about 156 units of permanent supportive housing in the city, which he said is a model that largely targets people who have been homeless for more than 12 months and have a disabling condition like substance abuse problems or mental health issues.

Because of the day-to-day care, and the fact that residents can stay there without time constraints, Smith said the model is one of the best options for people suffering from chronic homelessness.

Citing research from the Center for Supportive Housing, Kirsten Yates, Kelly's senior adviser for communications and digital strategy, said the Chattanooga community will need a little more than 500 additional permanent supportive housing units to close the gap.

"Permanent supportive housing is a part of our broader housing strategy to create affordability across the entire income spectrum," Yates said in an email. "Just like every other category of our broader housing stock, we have a serious shortage of permanent supportive housing units, which makes it more difficult to move people out of homelessness."


DESCENDING SPIRAL

Passing vehicles roar past pedestrians walking along Bonny Oaks Drive. Cliff Hudson is the pastor at Silverdale Cumberland Presbyterian Church, which faces the roadway and sits less than a mile from the Airport Inn and other motels in the immediate area.

Standing outside his church in the waning sunlight on an afternoon in November, he points out makeshift shelters where he's seen people sleeping. Those shelters include a tiny bridge that runs over a nearby creek and a camp hidden in the trees just beyond the church's property.

Especially during cold weather, it's not unusual for Hudson to come to work in the morning and find someone resting under the church's canopy -- or anywhere around the building that offers respite from the wind. Most don't have tents, but they may have a sleeping bag.

"The overwhelming majority of the people that I deal with are not bothering anybody," Hudson noted.

Many work for temporary employment agencies and perform day labor in an effort to afford the daily rate at one of the nearby hotels, he said. The money they earn doesn't always leave them with enough left over to afford food.

"I've learned over the years what a descending spiral it is for anyone to try to live in a hotel," Hudson said. "Even if you do get enough money to rent that room, then how are you going to eat?"

Hudson and the church often provide microwaveable meals to people staying at one of the nearby motels. They also have plastic bags full of grab-and-go snacks like vienna sausages, apple sauce and crackers they can hand out to hungry passersby.

Hudson wants to see the city keep nearby stakeholders in the loop about the Airport Inn conversion and also have a comprehensive plan for the endeavor.

"If the city is trying to do something positive, and if the city will include folks like us in the conversation, I'll 110% support it," Hudson said about the project.

Ivan Brown, the executive pastor of Pneuma Church, likewise approves of the city's efforts to turn the Airport Inn into permanent supportive housing, which would be a roughly 15-minute walk from the church's building. Brown said church leaders want to be part of the effort to assist residents at the planned complex, which could include offering training in financial literacy.

Brown said church leaders are comfortable with the screening process city officials have outlined for residents who would stay at the converted motel.

"We're not just a handout church, we're a hand-up church," Brown noted. "We've had members that come through who are homeless, and they've been able to transition into entrepreneurship and much higher-paying jobs to where they can support themselves and become economically stable."

A STEP UP

In June, Kelly visited a supportive housing facility on Vine Street in Hollywood, California, that had been completed by a nonprofit organization called Step Up. The organization had converted an old 1920s motel into a 36-unit complex.

"What I saw was pretty powerful," Kelly told members of the City Council on Oct. 11. "From the outside, as I walked up to the building, I couldn't even distinguish it from any other apartment building.

"The sidewalks were clean, the neighborhood was vibrant and it was next door to an elementary school. Once we were inside, there was a lobby with a team of dedicated social workers who are on-site 24/7 and help provide case management and counseling services to the tenants. But otherwise, it looked just like any other apartment building."

Tod Lipka, the CEO of Step Up, said in an October phone interview that the nonprofit organization completed its first motel conversion in 2009, and it has numerous others in development. The projects typically occur in places where homeless people already live, and they are more cost-effective than ground-up construction.

"You put in a kitchenette and refresh the unit, and you've turned a motel unit into a studio apartment," he said.

Step Up plans to compete for the project in Chattanooga when the city opens its request for proposals for a service provider and developer. Although there have been concerns about how accessible the location would be for residents in need of groceries, health care or public transit, Lipka said his organization has completed housing complexes in places with similar obstacles. Helping residents access those amenities is one of the responsibilities of the service provider, he said.

"In the beginning, our staff may go on the bus with someone to the grocery store and go shopping with them," Lipka said. "The same thing with cooking a meal. We may just be in the unit with someone chopping vegetables with them and showing them that you put oil in a pan, and you don't heat it up too much -- all of those little details that matter a lot if you don't know them."

Lipka participated in a tense community meeting about the Airport Inn project in October, where he and city officials were pelted with questions and concerns about how they would screen the people staying at the facility, the perceived lack of communication the city has offered about the project and how residents would access basic needs in that location, which at least one speaker stated is in a food desert.

Thongnopnua said that's an issue worth a separate meeting. There are already several historic neighborhoods near the downtown core that are either in a food desert or a "food swamp," which describes areas where there is an abundance of fast food but few healthy options.

"Those are topics that we're working on," Thongnopnua said. "I don't think there's a perfect location for any housing unit or housing complex of any type. Obviously, you're going to have to compensate for the neighborhood you're in and what their strengths and weaknesses are."

Thongnopnua said the conversion of the Airport Inn is a cost-effective means of providing housing. According to a November news release from the city, the cost of buying the property on Lee Highway equated to $40,000 per unit, which is lower than the market rate of new construction. That can average nearly $200,000 per unit in Tennessee.

MORE DIGNITY

Ann-Marie Fitzsimmons, a co-founder of the organization Help Right Here, launched the city's sanctioned homeless camp with her colleague, Niki Keck. She agreed the city needs more permanent supportive housing -- something that can assist people still navigating the complexities of establishing a day-to-day schedule or setting a budget.

Housing gives people a stable platform to address the issues that caused them to become homeless in the first place, Fitzsimmons said, but many people end up back on the street if they don't have continued assistance.

"These people have traumas like you wouldn't believe," Fitzsimmons said about the residents of the campsite on Peeples Street. "There's stories that I've heard from our residents that would make your toes curl ... and people cannot move past that stuff easily."

Wayne Smith moved to the city's sanctioned camp on Peeples Street just a day or two before Gullion. Bundled up in their coats, they sit together outside a tent, which is one of dozens that stretch in rows across the site's large, asphalt lot. Smith used to live at a campsite in Lookout Mountain. A couple years ago, a car slammed into him while he was riding his bicycle to work in the morning.

"I was trying to cross the road and, bam, I got hit," he said. "I've got two metal rods in my leg."

Smith said he had known Fitzsimmons for about five years before she talked him into settling at the sanctioned camp.

"I try to abide by the rules," he said. "Since I came in here, I don't do no drinking no more. I used to drink every day. I stopped, and I'm trying to get straightened out."

Even if residents are still living in tents, Fitzsimmons stated, the sanctioned camp acts as a necessary Band-Aid to the city's homeless problem, offering people living on the street a safe enclosure. Residents heading to work in the morning can leave their belongings at the site without worrying about them being stolen. There's also food, bathrooms and a shower. The gates are padlocked, and there are security cameras.

"It provides more services and more dignity than people living under a bridge or living on the sidewalk," Fitzsimmons said.

The city of Chattanooga entered into a $120,000, one-year contract with Help Right Here in June to run the complex, and Fitzsimmons said in early November there are approximately 40 people staying at the site plus about 15 on a waiting list. So far, she said, a little more than a dozen residents have moved on to more positive circumstances, which have included finding permanent living situations or reconnecting with family members.

There are rules, which include being back at the camp by 10 p.m. on weekdays and 11 p.m. on weekends, but Fitzsimmons said the expectations aren't overwhelming. Some residents are also on an executive committee and receive a stipend of $400 a month to watch the gate, handle donations and manage the camp.

Residents must read and sign a list of rules before staying at the site. With the exception of knives that have blades up to 3.5 inches in length, no weapons are allowed in the camp. Possessing drugs or alcohol results in a 24-hour ban for the first offense, 72 hours for the second and a permanent ban for the third. Physical violence also results in a permanent ban.

Harassing or bullying another resident or destroying camp property can result in a write-up, and if residents get three write-ups, managers and members of the executive committee will discuss possible consequences. There's also a penalty for leaving a mess or dirty dishes in the kitchen area, which could result in an extra chore or write-up, and residents can only have one visitor at a time.

Fitzsimmons said there's a limit to how large the camp can reasonably grow with available resources, noting that the maximum will likely be 50 people, but she's hopeful other local organizations will be open to pursue a similar model in the future.

Thongnopnua said the encampment also provides residents with more immediate access to service providers, case workers and housing navigators, who can count on residents staying in one place over a longer period of time.

"The number in the camp has remained a little lower than we have anticipated, but it is because people are exiting into housing at a faster rate than we were anticipating, which is a good thing," Thongnopnua said.

OTHER EFFORTS

The city is also eyeing other projects. Officials recently earmarked about $2.8 million in federal pandemic funds to construct a new low-barrier shelter, which would serve homeless people who may be suffering from issues like addiction that would be otherwise turned away at other facilities.

Fundamentally, homeless shelters act as an emergency stopgap for people experiencing homelessness, giving them a place to stay for the night, whereas permanent supportive housing is available long-term without time constraints.

Thongnopnua said in late October that officials were still in the process of identifying the location of low-barrier shelter and who would end up operating it.

"There are a lot of open questions right now, and while we focus on getting Airport Inn up and running, a low barrier shelter is something that we're also focused on," Thongnopnua said. "... We'll be updating the public on the status of the low-barrier shelter, which is something that we clearly need, here in the coming weeks and months ahead."

Funding for that shelter will come out of a $33 million affordable housing fund included in the city's fiscal year 2023 budget. City officials hope to raise an additional $67 million and have been holding meetings with local lenders, businesses, philanthropic partners and nonprofit organizations to formulate a funding plan, which Yates said is in the final stages of development. She said Kelly will announce those details as soon as they are finalized.

The city has so far distributed $15.2 million from its $33 million housing fund, which includes $5.8 million that officials say would help create 236 affordable housing units in the city. Of the money disbursed, $12.7 million came from proceeds the city received through the American Rescue Plan Act, a stimulus package passed by Democrats in Congress in 2021 to help the economy through the pandemic.

Thongnopnua breaks the city's strategy into three parts: Preventing people from becoming homeless, providing the means for people to leave homelessness, and addressing the secondary effects of homelessness on tourism and local businesses. Fundamentally, the long-term solution to homelessness is housing, Thongnopnua said, but officials are also working in the short and medium terms to come up with fixes.

"Obviously homelessness is a really challenging issue that few communities have fully gotten their arms around," Thongnopnua said. "The opportunity to be the first community of our size to effectively tackle homelessness in a compassionate, competent and innovative way is something that is really exciting and is exactly what this mayor is committed to."

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Chattanooga leaders have set aside $33 million to support affordable housing projects in the city and have so far allocated $15.2 million. Much of that funding comes from federal dollars the city received through the American Rescue Plan Act.

Officials hope to raise an additional $67 million in partnership with nonprofit organizations, philanthropic organizations and the private sector. Here’s what the city has appropriated to date:

— $1.8 million (ARPA) to Kingdom Partners for the creation of 30 new affordable rental units plus a “capacity building network” to spur additional affordable housing projects within the faith community.

— $1 million (ARPA) to Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga for the Eviction Prevention Initiative.

— $1.5 million (ARPA) to the AIM Center for the creation of 60 affordable housing units.

— $1 million (ARPA) to Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise for the creation of 83 affordable housing units.

— $1.5 million (ARPA) to Greater Tucker Baptist for the creation of 63 affordable housing units for seniors.

— $1 million (ARPA) to Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprises for a purchase rehab affordable resale program.

— $500,000 (ARPA) to city of Chattanooga Community Development for its home repair program.

— $1.5 million (ARPA) to Step Up for supportive housing services.

— $2.84 million (ARPA) has been reserved by the city for the development of a low-barrier shelter.

— $60,000 (ARPA) to World Changers for its home repair program.

— $1 million to the Chattanooga Housing Authority for renovations to the James A. Henry School as part of the Westside Evolves plan.

— $1.5 million to support general operating costs at Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprises, which is an increase of $770,000 from what the city has allocated in previous years.

Contact David Floyd at dfloyd@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @flavid_doyd.

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