Chattanooga faces questions, skepticism about location for low-barrier homeless shelter

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Kevin Roig, director of public affairs for the city of Chattanooga, holds the microphone as Brent Goldberg, the vice chancellor for finance and administration at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, asks a question Wednesday during a meeting at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center.

Chattanooga police Capt. Zachary McCullough doesn't know if placing a low-barrier homeless shelter downtown will be a good or bad idea. What he does know is the situation on the streets needs to improve.

Officers patrol the area around East 11th Street every day, pushing people out of camps, arresting them and moving them from one illegal spot to another, he said.

"The very first question they ask the officers is, 'Where can I go?' and we don't have an answer," McCullough, who oversees the sector that includes East 12th Street, told property owners and residents during a community meeting Wednesday evening. "While we don't know what the ultimate result is, we have to try something, and I'm willing to give it a shot."

The city intends to use more than $2.8 million in federal pandemic relief funds to convert a transit building at 710 E. 12th St. into a 24/7 low-barrier homeless shelter, a more accessible type of facility that doesn't typically bar people based on their backgrounds, religious beliefs or substance abuse issues. On Wednesday evening, staff in Mayor Tim Kelly's office answered questions from people who live and work near the proposed site.

The facility is a tool homeless service providers said the city has needed for a long time, and placing the shelter on 12th Street would put it within easy walking distance of the Chatt Foundation, which offers food, foot care, laundry and other services to homeless people, and the Homeless Health Care Center, a medical clinic that also serves the city's unhoused. City officials have previously said the shelter would not permit sex offenders or people with drug manufacturing convictions.

(READ MORE: Neighbors oppose spot identified for Chattanooga's low-barrier homeless shelter)

Although officials note it will still be a while before the project gets off the ground, the city is asking the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission to consider a change of use for the property Nov. 13, which would enable the plan to move forward with one step in the process, officials said.

The city would also have to buy out the federal government's remaining interest in the building, about $700,000, and the Chattanooga City Council would have to approve the purchase. The city would then renovate the building and issue a request for proposals for an organization to operate the shelter. It could have the capacity for 150-164 people depending on the final design.

"We acknowledge that there's no silver bullet for addressing homelessness, and we're under no delusion that this is going to solve it," Kevin Roig, Kelly's senior advisor for public affairs, told the crowd. "It takes a lot of people. It takes a lot of organizations and a multivariate approach."

The shelter would be one more resource in a comprehensive toolkit of solutions, he said.

Residents and property owners oppose the location and were handing out flyers ahead of the meeting. Kelly's dream of a "One Chattanooga," they said, won't be realized until the entire city bears its fair share of responsibility for resolving homelessness. That's a reference to a policy framework the mayor's office released last year aimed at closing disparities in Chattanooga.

They also argue that congregating people of similar circumstances in a single location has never worked, and they advocate for using mobile units staffed with current service providers to reach homeless people throughout the city.

After two weeks of work and two meetings with the Regional Planning Agency, Chris Curtis, a residential developer with properties around M.L. King Boulevard, said he's identified seven other locations that could serve as worthy alternative spots for the shelter. He handed the list to city staff.

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

"I'm not saying these are the best solutions," he told the crowd, "but what I'm saying is there is probably a better overall plan that needs to happen."

The city needs to find a campus where officials can provide meals, housing and mental health services, Curtis said.

"You need community support, and you need money," he said. "If you locate those services where I can't make a living, I have no ability to support you financially (and) thus give you community support as well. It's the same thing this whole downtown corridor is facing right now."

Brent Goldberg, the vice chancellor for finance and administration at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, asked why the Regional Planning Agency was voting on the change of use before a second community input meeting Nov. 15.

"I believe there was more input for the Airport Inn ... than is scheduled currently for this," he said, referencing a permanent supportive housing project the city is working on off Lee Highway.

Goldberg also asked how police would tie the new shelter into their enforcement plan, what happens to people if they're kicked out of the building and how the city can prevent them from ending up on the college's campus. UTC has more students living on campus than ever before because of the city's affordable housing crisis, he said.

Goldberg used to serve as chief financial officer in Kelly's administration before leaving for his UTC position last November.

"I'm well aware of the need for a low-barrier shelter in the community," Goldberg said. "I do think it's needed ... There's nowhere to take homeless individuals now other than the jail, which doesn't work, or to Erlanger (hospital)."

McCullough said the department is pairing Officer Brandon Watson, who is part of its crisis co-response unit, with three or four other officers as well as service providers to boost enforcement in the toughest areas. McCullough is hopeful that once the shelter opens, problems will decrease. The building will have the capacity to house about 40% of the homeless people currently living downtown, he said.

Jean Smith, who lives on Park Avenue, said her neighborhood deals with the brunt of the city's homeless issues. Residents have people sleeping on their front porches at night, and she doesn't feel safe walking down 10th, 11th or 12th streets.

"Forcing people to stay in one area is apartheid," she said. "You're saying that the only place for the homeless is right here ... in the core of the city.

Jermaine Freeman, Kelly's chief of staff, said he also lives downtown and regularly encounters homeless people. The city is not trying to create an "apartheid situation" downtown. The city's homeless are already using services present along 11th Street, and that area is a logical spot for the facility.

"Tonight it's going to be 29 degrees," he told attendees. "Last night, it was 31 degrees. Choosing to do a shelter or choosing to not do a shelter is a policy decision. ... We are not the first city to have a homeless shelter. There are many comparably sized cities, from Knoxville to Huntsville, that have homeless shelters in their communities."

Dr. Sudave Mendiratta, chief of emergency medicine at Erlanger Health, said he bought a house on the 900 block of M.L King Boulevard when he heard where the city plans to place the shelter.

"I know that my property value is going to go up," Mendiratta said. "With a low-barrier shelter, it is the national best standard to solve the problem that we have. It is the missing link in our community."

Contact David Floyd at or 423-757-6249.