Opinion: Where are Chattanooga’s homeless supposed to go?

Staff Photo by David Floyd / The Chattanooga City Council will consider on first reading on Nov. 8 a request to rezone the former Airport Inn at 7725 Lee Highway, which the city plans to convert into about 70 units of permanent supportive housing. The structure is seen here on Monday.
Staff Photo by David Floyd / The Chattanooga City Council will consider on first reading on Nov. 8 a request to rezone the former Airport Inn at 7725 Lee Highway, which the city plans to convert into about 70 units of permanent supportive housing. The structure is seen here on Monday.

One has to wonder what the homeless are supposed to do.

One has to wonder, also, how the Chattanooga City Council will proceed to figuring out how to help -- or not help -- the homeless.

These are not just idle thoughts. Our city government, state government and some churches have of late been sending contradictory messages.

Just last week, city officials and community members from at least two Silverdale area churches and a private school again squabbled over the city's plan for the former 74-room Airport Inn hotel on Lee Highway.

The City Council voted a year ago to spend nearly $3 million to purchase the hotel and turn it into 70 apartments with wrap-around services for homeless people who needed help becoming housed. This would not be a homeless shelter, city officials insist. It would be homes to rehouse the homeless.

But people from the community churches are still afraid, and they accuse the city of failing to fully communicate its planning -- something city officials acknowledge could have -- should have -- been more transparent.

Frankly, though, what's more to see? The city plans to install a fence, hire guards and social workers.

If church and private school folks from Silverdale Baptist Academy have more to fear about the people who will be housed at the hotel, there are at least three more aging hotels very much like this one in the same neighborhood. One would think the community would prefer the city's new plan over the status-quo deterioration.

But the city hasn't helped its own case.

Just before Halloween, several public benches were removed from Chattanooga's downtown in an attempt "to reduce crime" and discourage the homeless from gathering there.

City officials and business leaders said the change should make the Market Street area safer, as the "problem" benches had been linked to panhandling, harassment and littering.

Of course, removing benches won't make homelessness go away. Bantam & Biddy general manager Tegess Herren told the TFP that now homeless people with no where to sit outside are coming into his restaurant, sometimes causing a scene or sometimes just cutting through to get somewhere else.

"It disrupts my business multiple times a day," he said.

On the other hand, turning a hotel into low-cost apartments might make a dent. The plan gets a council vote next week.

But if we lived in or worked in the Silverdale area, or sent our children to school near the Airport Inn, we couldn't help but question a city that took benches out of downtown to keep homeless people off of them, but at the same time talked of turning a hotel next door to us into a home for 70 homeless folks.

It's not an easy fix. Or is it?

Wasn't Jesus born in a stable? In Matthew, he is stated to have said, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head."

Later in that same Bible chapter, the lesson was clearer. "For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me."

The parable goes on: "Then the righteous will answer him, saying, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?

"And the King will answer them, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me."

All of us, no matter the name of our bibles, have similar spiritual teachings of this same life lesson.

Does that exonerate the city from its fumbling of this project? Of course not.

But the city isn't the point here. Help is the point.

In March, we noted on this page that Chattanooga mayors and leaders over recent years had thrown a bit of everything but the kitchen sink at trying to ease homelessness in our city, seemingly with a bit of success -- at least until the COVID-19 pandemic came along and housing costs shot through the roof.

This week, new statistics are shocking. The number of homeless people sleeping outside in Chattanooga on any given night rose from 201 people in 2020 to 1,008 people in 2022. In the last year alone, the number of homeless women increased from 75 to 528.

The numbers for all homeless people over the entire Southeast region show a 153% increase, from 1,217 to 3,084.

Meanwhile, the Tennessee General Assembly voted in April to criminalize homelessness by making homeless people in Tennessee who camp or sleep in parks or on other public property -- state or other jurisdictions -- subject to criminal felony charges. The measure also made homeless people camping around highways subject to misdemeanor charges.

Homelessness can happen to anyone. It can happen when a family dissolves, people divorce or someone loses a job, becomes drug addicted or suffers a mental problem.

There is no one solution to either ensuring affordable homes or to ending homelessness.

That's why we just have to keep tossing in every possible fix we can imagine -- from kitchen sinks to re-imagined hotels -- in search of remedies for this ever-evolving problem.

What's more, it's not just up Mayor Tim Kelly and the Chattanooga City Council. It's also up to city business owners who insist that "problem benches" be removed. And it's up to church members who fear new neighbors on their block.

Remember the parable, and ask yourselves that old cliche: What would Jesus do?

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