Mud squelches underfoot as a procession of volunteers navigates a wooded footpath in Chattanooga, careful to step around puddles, wet leaves and protruding branches.
Shopping carts, articles of clothing, an empty cardboard package that once held cans of Dr Pepper and other items are scattered sparingly around the walkway. In the distance, flashes of color hint at the location of tents, which are mostly hidden among a dense thicket of trees.
A trio breaks off from their peers and stands at the entrance of one of the makeshift shelters, gently announcing their presence. A flap opens and a face appears. Speaking in a muted voice, the occupant agrees to answer a series of questions, which the volunteers log using a website pulled up on their phones.
The Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition and its partners embarked on the first day of their weeklong point-in-time count Monday, an annual snapshot of the 11-county region's homeless population.
The number of people experiencing homelessness skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic, with the coalition reporting last April the numbers had jumped from 1,217 in 2021 to 3,084 in 2022. In Hamilton County alone, those figures rose 177% from 364 to 1,008 during the same time period, the coalition reported at the time -- an even greater leap than the 81% hike the county saw between 2020 and 2021.
With organizers expecting to have the figures tallied around the end of the month, Sam Wolfe, the director of Chattanooga's Office of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, said in a phone interview Monday even a stabilization of the region's homeless population would be a win in 2023.
"These are not just people who materialize out of nowhere," he said. "These are Chattanoogans who were struggling to make ends meet and then they had something happen -- some unexpected stressor or they were just finally unable to support themselves in their housing."
One recent bright spot has been a large number of people finding housing. Since July 1, Wolfe said his office has housed 314 people -- more than the prior 12 months combined. Most of those people are renting from private landlords, Wolfe said, and either have a time-limited subsidy through a federal entitlement program or they're on a Section 8 voucher.
Mike Smith, executive director of the Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition, said the region also has seen a steady number of people becoming homeless for the first time, with a rise in family homelessness being directly related to rent increases. Larger units geared for families with children, he noted, tend to have a rent that exceeds a household's monthly income.
During the point-in-time count, the coalition collects demographic information about the region's homeless population and uses that data to identify trends and refine priorities for programs in the coming year. A disproportionately large percentage of the local homeless population are people of color.
This year, the coalition is also asking respondents how long they have lived in the area, a question Smith said is aimed at combating a common myth that many people without homes have been brought into the region by bus.
"That's not unique to Chattanooga," Smith said in an interview at his office Monday. "Every city has that myth ... because people don't want to acknowledge the fact that we are failing some of our neighbors."
In addition to the tally completed in January, Smith said, the homeless coalition is also looking at adding another count in the summer, which would help capture the number of transient people who may flow into the area during the middle of the year.
"Because the (count) involves so much time and volunteers, it can be a difficult thing, especially if you're doing it twice a year," Smith noted. "I want to do it twice a year."
In 2021, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development allowed communities to skip the count because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Smith said, but groups chose to forge ahead with the census because they knew there had been an increase in the local homeless population. In 2021 and 2022, the coalition limited the number of people conducting the count to reduce the risk of spreading the virus in camps.
Many of the volunteers participating in the count Monday were students in a class on U.S. poverty at Covenant College, a private Christian school in Lookout Mountain, Georgia. The professor, Lance Wescher, said the annual homeless census is a recurring part of the course curriculum and estimated about 25 of his students, many of them juniors and seniors, were making the rounds Monday.
A 21-year-old senior at Covenant College who hopes to eventually work in refugee resettlement, Grace Elder is originally from Atlanta.
"Urban poverty is something I'm confronted with daily," she said. "However, I haven't had the chance to learn about it in an academic setting where I'm able to kind of just learn more about not only development interventions but also the nature of what people living in my backyard are going through."
As they delve deeper into the coursework, Elder is hopeful the experience Monday will help her and her classmates explore the issue of poverty in a more informed manner.
"It's easy in a classroom to almost dehumanize a problem," Elder said, "and I think it's helpful for us to be here and just kind of see before we talk about it."
Having just met a woman who had been living on the street for about three years, Jesse Newman, a 19-year-old sophomore at Covenant College studying economics and philosophy, said he was struck by how long-term the problem can be for some people.
Up to that point, his general perception of homelessness had been people often spend a few weeks without stable living arrangements before ultimately finding a place a stay.
"It was eye-opening to see this is where she lives right now," he said.
A U.S. Army veteran who retired in 2001, Vincent Spann now operates the nonprofit Connecting Vets to Resources and was also among the volunteers Monday morning.
His organization has received an emergency solutions grant to help place homeless veterans in housing, which includes paying their security deposit, buying them furniture and providing them with utilities. He also helps them access untapped benefits like health insurance.
"A lot of veterans get out of the military, but they don't go through the process of enrolling to see if they qualify for assistance through the (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs)," Spann said.
Monday was Spann's second time participating in the point-in-time count -- the first being in 2019 -- and he noted it's fairly common to find veterans among the local homeless population. Many suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental health issues that can complicate the process of accessing resources that could help them settle into a stable living situation.
While the point-in-time count acts as an essential mile marker as service organizations evaluate how to properly assist the homeless population, Spann said it also acts as a critical form of validation.
"I think it's important to look someone in the face -- square in the face -- and let them know, 'I see you. I hear you. I'm here to help you. How can I help you?'" Spann said. "'Will you allow me to help you?'"