Chattanooga prepares to wind down sanctioned homeless camp

Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Tents line an asphalt lot at the homeless camp at the intersection of 12th Street and Peeples Street on Oct. 28.
Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Tents line an asphalt lot at the homeless camp at the intersection of 12th Street and Peeples Street on Oct. 28.

A local nonprofit will continue to operate a sanctioned homeless camp for another six months as Chattanooga officials look to move the 33 residents to permanent housing before ultimately closing the site.

The Chattanooga City Council voted Tuesday to extend its contract with Help Right Here through Feb. 1. The total value of their agreement is now $286,475, an increase of $81,850.

"We're very grateful for Help Right Here," Casey Tinker, the manager of the Chattanooga Office of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, said in an interview. "They're amazing, and they will continue on however they see fit. It's not the end of their organization. It's just the end of the site. ... We fully support their mission and future endeavors."

(READ MORE: Chattanooga officials, groups see need for more supportive housing to combat homelessness)

The city first entered into a yearlong agreement with Help Right Here in May 2022 to run a gated and fenced-in homeless camp on city land at the corner of 12th and Peeples streets. It's designed to act as a temporary and secure springboard for homeless people as they work to acquire permanent housing.

Deputy Chief of Staff Brooke Satterfield told the council Tuesday the city recently issued a new request for proposals with the goal of hiring an organization to continue operating the camp. It did not result in any bids that met the city's criteria, which typically means Chattanooga wouldn't move forward with a contract.

"But there are obviously humans involved in this scenario," Satterfield said, "and it's, of course, the priority of the administration and Help Right Here and this council that the residents currently living on the site are not negatively impacted by the sanctioned encampment winding down."

Tinker said the city will work with Help Right Here and the Chattanooga Housing Authority over the next six months to place the existing 33 residents in permanent housing. The camp will not admit any new residents during that time. In the coming weeks, the City Council will consider an up to $100,000 interlocal agreement with the housing authority to assist with the process.

"We typically will enter into an interlocal agreement with the housing authority when we do have more urgent situations such as the sanctioned encampment," Satterfield told council.

Tinker said Help Right Here was the only organization to submit a proposal for the project, but officials could not come to an agreement on the contract's budget, which the city asked not to exceed $100,000. The organization's initial yearlong contract with the city had been for $163,700, which Tinker said included initial setup costs.

Tinker said city officials are still moving forward with plans to build a 24/7 low-barrier homeless shelter, a facility that generally has fewer rules and restrictions for people seeking a place to sleep. Mayor Tim Kelly has set aside $2.84 million in federal pandemic relief funds for the project. As of late June, city officials were still trying to finalize a location.

"We are still in the planning process of it, but we are determined that there will be a shelter ... and there will be more coming in the next few months on that," Tinker said. "But the shelter is the key to it all, and the encampment was only intended to be temporary to start with. It was never meant to be a permanent solution."

Over the long-term, Tinker said, Chattanooga hopes to eventually turn its property at the corner of 12th and Peeples street into housing.

This is the second time the city has extended Help Right Here's contract. In May, council members voted to lengthen the agreement with Help Right Here by three months to allow time for the city to complete its request for proposals.

(READ MORE: After numbers jumped during pandemic, Hamilton County homeless population drops 31%)

As of May, the camp had hosted 117 people since opening the year prior, with nearly 30 of those moving into housing. Ann Marie Fitzsimmons, one of the co-founders of Help Right Here, said at least one more resident has moved into permanent housing since then, and another two are slated to go in a week or so. She said in a phone call Tuesday she's optimistic about the future.

"There are things coming afterwards, hopefully, that are going to be better than the camp," she said. "We'll see what happens. There's a lot of stuff going on."

Fitzsimmons was happy with the six-month extension and the opportunity to find housing for residents.

"It's been so great," Fitzsimmons said about running the camp. "I wouldn't trade it for anything. It's been hard, but it's been so fulfilling."

Contact David Floyd at dfloyd@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.