Angela Newman has been homeless since June 2021 and has lived in an encampment on Chattanooga's 11th Street by the Norfolk Southern rail line for six months.
"I got really depressed, mental issues, and I didn't handle it properly and got in trouble," Newman said, explaining how she ended up on the street. "It was kind of depressing. I was away from family. I'm not from here. I'm not even from the state."
Having moved to Tennessee from Alabama, Newman and her fiance, Eric Stone, were two of a handful of lingering residents gathering up personal belongings as they prepared to vacate the property on Wednesday. Stone uses crutches, having been recently shot just outside the couple's tent, Newman said.
"It was an argument between him and another gentleman ... he left, came back and shot him right in the femur," Newman said. "Shattered it completely."
Although they had originally set a Tuesday deadline for residents to leave the property, officials with the city of Chattanooga said they were giving people until around 1 p.m. Wednesday to vacate the land. They then planned to bulldoze the site on Thursday morning.
Around 2 p.m. on Wednesday, several people were still picking through piles of debris on the property. A few were sitting on the sidewalk on the other side of 11th Street.
Sam Wolfe, the city's director of homelessness and supportive housing, said Wednesday that his staff arrived at the property at 8:30 a.m. to remind people who remained there to clear out by the afternoon, in partnership with police and public works employees.
"My team has been out here every single day for the past two weeks reminding folks," Wolfe said. "We first had the notification for folks to vacate the property ... over two months ago, but we find that you can't just post a sign with folks. You've got to engage, communicate with people."
In a March announcement, city officials cited safety issues with the camp being near active railroad tracks and said they were working with Norfolk Southern, the owner of the land, and multiple homeless organizations to find housing for residents.
The city of Chattanooga has a beautification lease with Norfolk Southern on the property, Wolfe said, but people started staying there during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, something the company felt was unsustainable.
With COVID-19 cases falling and safety issues cropping up in the camp, including fires and "multiple murder attempts," Wolfe said, the city opted to establish a timeline to remove people from the property.
"There have been a variety of issues that have kind of popped up on the site that we've been monitoring over time," Wolfe added. "It really kind of specifically came to a head in the last few months."
Among other safety concerns, Wolfe said, the city has recovered propane tanks from the camp.
"There was a fire, and there was a tent that had numerous propane tanks," he said. "We were lucky there wasn't an explosion."
Chattanooga to finish clearing 11th Street homeless camp
Wolfe said Wednesday morning he believed every single resident was making an effort to remove belongings from the property. He added that the city planned to maintain contact with residents of the encampment to ensure they continue to have access to services.
The city has opened a temporary sanctioned homeless camp on 12th Street near Peeples Street. Some residents have said they want to live there, Wolfe said, and officials are also processing referrals for both public housing and federal Section 8 vouchers for rent subsidies. So far, officials say, they have placed 35 people in public housing.
"We're thankful for a tremendous partnership with the housing authority to really work to turn those units in a more expeditious way than they normally do," he said.
Wolfe said everyone living in the encampment will have a place to stay if they want it.
"There's definitely ... people that say, 'I am electing not to take those resources," he said. "We're making sure we're offering (them) for every single person who wants it."
He added that his staff is simply trying to provide residents with options. Wolfe estimated that approximately a third of the 140 people originally living in the encampment have declined assistance. There were roughly 20-30 residents there on Wednesday morning, he said.
Standing in the slowly shrinking camp on Wednesday morning, Newman said she and Stone hope to stay with some friends for a few nights and use that time to find a more stable place to live.
There were "ups and downs" to living in the camp, Newman said. She's met good people, and some residents, she said, have even managed to obtain credentials that allowed them to get a job and leave the property. Crime, however, is "crazy."
"Sometimes you do have to worry about watching your back, especially as a female," she said.
Newman has mixed emotions about the city clearing the Norfolk Southern property.
"I understand it. It's trying to help people," she said.
But, Newman said, she does not like the idea of the supervised homeless camp the city opened recently near the Community Kitchen.
"There's just so many rules that I don't think should be in place, and you have to think of people's mentality on being trapped somewhere ... like an animal in a cage type thing," she said. "It's already bad enough that we're out here. We've got to figure out something else to help people."
Operated by the nonprofit Help Right Here, Wolfe said, the camp was developed after extensive research about similar models, especially in Seattle.
"We are trying to create options for folks," Wolfe said. "This is why we set up this location ... because there's more Chattanoogans on the street than there have ever been before, and there's just not enough places for them to go."
Wolfe noted that the Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition's point in time count last year tallied 1,000 people and of that number 700 were sleeping on the street or in tents.
Ann-Marie Fitzsimmons and Niki Keck, the co-creators of Help Right Here, said the camp's rules are designed to keep residents safe. People can't bring weapons into the camp, can't have a sex offense on their record and can't have a warrant out for their arrest.
Residents must be back in the encampment before the gates lock at 10 p.m., and there are quiet hours between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m.
The camp currently has 15 residents, and the nonprofit expects to have 60 by the end of the summer. Organizers are still evaluating the camp's maximum capacity.
Sitting in the sun outside his makeshift shelter on Wednesday, Ricky McDonald, 62, said he's still working on a plan, but he may end up living with his family. McDonald has also lived in the camp on 11th Street for about six months, he said.
McDonald has an overarching issue with how Tennessee has handled homelessness. A new state law that makes it a felony to camp in parks and local public property goes into effect on July 1, carrying a maximum penalty of up to six years in prison, according to The Associated Press.
"It goes against everything the forefathers fought (for)," he said about the law. "They said that everybody has a right to live where they want to live. It's like taking your rights away ... If they can pass a bill into law like that, the next thing we're gonna do is be in martial law."