Help Right Here opens another homeless camp in Chattanooga

Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Help Right Here, a local nonprofit, acquired a piece of property at the corner of 11th and Peeples streets that serves as a sanctioned camp for about 25 people as seen on Wednesday.

Blasted by a large fan on a hot May afternoon, two men named Alvin relax on a couch under a large, enclosed shelter, their respective walkers propped up within arm's reach.

Alvin Rutledge's left leg is partially amputated, the result of an infection that has gradually encroached farther and farther up his appendage. Alvin Taylor has suffered two strokes, and recently had a hole in his stomach patched at Erlanger hospital.

Both Alvins live at a gated supervised camp at 12th and Peeples streets in Chattanooga, which is designed to act as a secure waystation for homeless people waiting on housing.

"I can lay down at night and go to sleep without someone stealing all my stuff," Taylor, a four-month resident, said in an interview Wednesday. "It's hard starting over again each and every day because someone stole your hygiene or your clothes."

Help Right Here, a local nonprofit, opened the camp a year ago, and its founders, Niki Keck and Ann-Marie Fitzsimmons, say it has served 117 people in that time with almost 30 residents moving on to more stable living situations.

"We like to think of the 12th and Peeples camp not as a destination but as a layover — a very necessary step in the ladder to housing," Keck told members of the Chattanooga City Council during a meeting this month. "The camp allows residents to be in a safe and stable environment that in turn allows them to heal and work towards housing."

The city of Chattanooga has provided funding for the effort and has extended its contract with the organization by another three months, bringing the total value of city aid to about $200,000. The nonprofit has also been accepting donations.

"If it weren't for them, I wouldn't have no type of stability," Taylor said, referring to Keck and Fitzsimmons. "None at all. What they did was give me a little security where I could have a meal, where I can eat, somewhere to use the bathroom indoors — somewhere where I can have a little dignity."

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

Taylor recently received a Section 8 housing voucher, which will help cover his rent at a new place, and he is now waiting for an eligible apartment. Erlanger hospital saved his life, Taylor said, "but my life was really saved when I came through those gates."

Camp Down There

The approved camp has come a long way since last summer. There's a verdant vegetable garden, a dog park that — once complete — will entertain the camp's roughly half dozen pets, and a massive, furnished tent where the roughly 40-50 people living at 12th and Peeples hold meetings, eat meals and watch TV. The nonprofit recently acquired another piece of property down the road and is allowing about 25 people to sleep on the land.

"The camps aren't an end-all-be-all," Fitzsimmons said in a phone call. "They're a Band-Aid, but right now they're a necessary Band-Aid."

Chattanooga leaders recently celebrated a 31% reduction in sheltered and unsheltered homelessness in Hamilton County, decreasing from 1,144 to 785. Those numbers had skyrocketed during the pandemic.

Located at 11th and Peeples streets, Fitzsimmons said the new spot — dubbed Camp Down There — isn't as organized as the original sanctioned camp and isn't receiving financial assistance from the city. However, the nonprofit hopes to raise funds to provide supplies for residents.

With so many places off-limits, Fitzsimmons said, Help Right Here is trying to provide residents with a stable, safe living situation where they can maintain access to services like case management and don't have to worry about being arrested. However, recent criminal activity in that area has also prompted concerns from neighbors.

"It's not a free-for-all like what's been presented by the news," Fitzsimmons said about the camp. "We know who's in there for the most part. It's harder to manage because we don't have it completely fenced in yet."

Until affordable housing options are available, she said, it may be necessary to open other temporary, short-term camping spots around Chattanooga.

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

Mickey McCamish, a retired U.S. Navy captain who helped start the Southeast Tennessee Veterans Coalition, donated the property at 11th and Peeples streets to Help Right Here in September.

He had originally intended to use the site as a resource center for homeless veterans, which would have included several units of transitional housing. McCamish said in a phone call Friday that the plan stalled after organizers ran into difficulty raising funds for the approximately $3 million project.

'Making people smile'

Shortly after 1 p.m. Wednesday, approximately a dozen people are at the camp on the corner of 11th and Peeples streets — some stationed near the entrance and others chatting in groups along a meandering row of tents. Nicole, who has earned the nickname "Mississippi" after the state where she was raised, has lived in Chattanooga for about two and a half years and at the camp on 11th Street for about two months.

If you need something, Mississippi can probably get it, whether that's bandages, clothes, a tent or a meal. On Wednesday, Mississippi is handing out cups of cold, pink lemonade and is sitting at a table in the shade created by a makeshift shelter. Mississippi said she was kicked out of Help Right Here's sanctioned camp after several days — "I like to run my mouth too much," she explained — but she continues to have a good relationship with Keck and Fitzsimmons.

"I trust you with my life," Fitzsimmons tells Mississippi. "I told her to come down here and help run (the camp) because she knows how it's supposed to go."

Camp Down There sits next to both the Homeless Healthcare Center and the Chatt Foundation, which provides services like foot care, haircuts and access to washers and dryers. There are also businesses, homes and a church within walking distance.

Although Mississippi said there are neighbors who allow her to charge appliances and pick up water, residents at the camp aren't always greeted with open arms.

"They hate us," Mississipi said. "They hate our guts. They probably hate what's inside our guts."

Another inhabitant of the 11th Street camp, Cecil Calloway, has just celebrated his 50th birthday and sits on the back of a three-wheeled bike flashing an easy, infectious smile. Originally raised in the Eastdale area, he estimates he's lived on East 11th Street for almost eight months.

Over the summer, he's planning on selling 10-15 different flavors of Popsicles — "frozens," as he calls them — out of one of his bicycles, an ice cream cart that he says will be outfitted with a big umbrella.

"I'm going to build a cooler for it — just put CO2 in it," Calloway said in an interview. "Dry ice. And I can make a frozen in there right before your eyes."

Calloway said he has no worries.

"I own nothing," he said. "I go around making people smile. That's my purpose. To wake people up — to let them know the Lord is real."

One of Calloway's neighbors, Darrin Harris, has lived at the 11th Street camp for two to three weeks. He will soon be 58 years old and has been diagnosed with congestive heart failure. Like Calloway, Harris possesses a strong faith in God.

"I'm happy," he said. "You have people living up on hills here with a million, million dollars, but they have no peace within themselves."

Harris moved to Chattanooga about 15 years ago from Jackson, Tennessee. Before settling in his current environs, Harris has tried to be particular about where he camped. It's easy to end up guilty by association because of something a neighbor does, he said.

"If one homeless individual goes around making a mess — wherever they are, or whatever it is — everyone gets the blame," Harris said. "You have people out here who are trying to help, and you have others who look down their nose at people — as a matter of fact they've given them another name: 'Those people.' Well, you've created another race when you say that, but we're all going to go stand before the Father upstairs."

Safety concerns

Bishop Kevin Adams, the senior pastor of Olivet Baptist Church, said he and his congregation are worried about safety risks posed by the camp, citing vandalism and violent criminal activity. The church, which also operates a Christian K-5 school at its campus, sits less than a quarter mile from the camp.

"We feed the homeless every day, clothe them, love on them ... but what has happened is there are a lot of criminals coming in that are preying on the homeless population," Adams said in a phone call Thursday, stating that there have been two murders in that area in recent weeks.

Assistant Chattanooga Police Chief Jerri Sutton estimates there have been three shootings near the camp over the past 60 days or so. Patrol officers, she said, have been working "to keep issues away" from Olivet Baptist Church and the nearby school.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga may use $2.8 million in federal funds for low-barrier homeless shelter)

"We are and have been working with the city's homeless assistance advocates to address several concerns including ongoing violence," Sutton said in an email Friday. "We've made several arrests for various offenses including homicide, assault and theft. We continue to monitor the area and are confident the camp will be relocated soon. Unfortunately, the process takes time to fully address without creating new issues through immediate disbanding of the camp."

Fitzsimmons said the Police Department has not asked that the camp at 11th and Peeples streets be removed. She's fairly certain the shootings originated from a group living on the other side of the fence near the sanctioned camp — two blocks away from Camp Down There.

"We really are trying to get more structure as we have funds come available," Fitzsimmons said, adding that Help Right Here plans to meet with leaders at Olivet Baptist Church this week.

Fitzsimmons said the man accused of committing a fatal shooting on April 16, Reginald Holland, was at that time not a resident of either of Help Right Here's camps.

"That shooting had nothing to do with anyone from either of those camps," she said. "That was a complete misconception."

According to an April news release, Chattanooga police arrested Holland after he allegedly shot and killed Ashley Coyne following an argument with another man. Coyne was a passenger in the car of a second man, who was preparing to drive away when Holland produced a gun, the release stated. Police said the incident occurred at 1200 Peeples St.

Baron King is the CEO of the Chatt Foundation, a homeless services organization that sits across Peeples Street from Camp Down There. He has mixed feelings about the new camp.

It creates problems for health and safety, King said in a phone call, but the bottom line is residents don't have a better place to go until the city opens a 24/7 low-barrier shelter — a project Mayor Tim Kelly's administration announced last summer. The city intends to fund the facility with $2.8 million in federal pandemic relief funds, but officials haven't yet revealed a location.

"We're just kind of hoping for ... an emergency shelter sooner rather than later so we don't have tent cities popping up everywhere," King said.

Contact David Floyd at or 423-757-6249.