In late June, more than 200 people will come to downtown Chattanooga for a three-day educational conference organized by the regional homeless coalition — an event already poised to be larger than years past.
"The homeless coalition has annually held an educational conference, but it was typically for only those within our system," Mike Smith, the executive director of the Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition, said in a phone interview. "Our attendance was lower, but one of the things I did when I became director was I started thinking on a broader scale."
Tennessee has 10 homeless response systems — regional planning organizations that coordinate housing and homeless services funding, which primarily comes from the federal government.
"There's certain things that the federal government requires of each of them throughout the year for training purposes," Smith said. "I thought Chattanooga would be a great place to do it. We're a tourist town for one, and we have the world's fastest internet — why not come here?"
The conference — Leading the Way Home Tennessee — will occur June 27-29 at the Chattanooga Convention Center, 1 Carter St. Registration will cost $300 per person for the remainder of the month and will increase to $350 in June. The money will cover the cost of the event and doubles as a fundraiser for the homeless coalition, Smith said.
Recently, Chattanooga leaders have been lauding a 31% drop in Hamilton County's homeless population, which spiked during the pandemic. The number of sheltered and unsheltered homeless people in Hamilton County decreased from 1,144 in 2022 to 785 in 2023.
In 2021, there were 579 sheltered and unsheltered homeless people countywide.
"We have some best practices that we've created here that other communities can learn from," Smith said.
According to the schedule, the event will feature a number of breakout sessions on various topics, including one by Help Right Here — a nonprofit that recently started a sanctioned homeless camp in Chattanooga with financial assistance from the city.
Since last year, organizers say, 117 people have lived at the camp at the corner of 12th and Peeples streets, with almost 30 moving on to more stable housing situations.
There will also be a grant writing workshop and a session about Narcan, used to reverse the effects of a drug overdose. Overdose deaths spiked during the pandemic, Smith said, including among people experiencing homelessness.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 91,799 overdose deaths across the nation in 2020, a 30% increase from 2019. Those deaths began accelerating in March 2020, the month the pandemic was declared a national emergency and stay-at-home orders went into effect.
Additionally, there will be a session about housing first — a strategy that prioritizes placing people in permanent housing and then layering on supportive services as needed.
Along with providers, the coalition hopes to see engagement at the conference from public officials, business leaders and members of the faith-based community. On days with box lunches, Smith said, organizers plan to have outreach workers on standby to deliver any leftovers to local homeless camps.
"We hope to keep growing it each year," Smith said about the conference. "In this field, there's only a couple of national conferences you can go to, and you don't really walk away with many tools. We're trying to show them a different way to do this."
Contact David Floyd at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6249.