Chattanooga officials have paused efforts to convert a transit building at 710 E. 12th St. into a 24/7 homeless shelter designed to get people shelter with as few obstacles as possible, citing a need to gather more feedback from neighbors.
The Regional Planning Agency had been scheduled to consider an application from the city during its meeting Monday, which would have been one step in a multi-phase approval process. City officials announced Thursday the item will not appear on the planning board's agenda for Monday.
City officials will continue to speak with members of the surrounding neighborhood and stakeholders about the proposal, according to a news release, and the city chose to defer consideration of the project to "demonstrate its commitment to due diligence."
Police and staff in Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly's office met with community members last week to answer questions about the proposal. The next meeting will occur 6:30-7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center, and two more meetings will occur before the holiday period. The city said it will post information about the project as well as questions and answers from the meetings online.
"Our neighbors and their insights, as well as their concerns, are very important to us," Richard Beeland, administrator for the City of Chattanooga's Department of Economic Development, said in the news release. "Our first meeting proved to be highly successful as we were able to document the questions asked by our neighbors, as well as to consider their input; from additional sites for consideration to rules they would like to see utilized by those coming into the shelter.
"The result will be a much better fit for those experiencing homelessness, as well as for those providing services to them. More importantly, it will finally provide a long-term strategy that will provide avenues for law enforcement and frontline providers as they meet critical needs of individuals within our community."
In July 2022, the city announced plans to use $2.84 million in federal pandemic relief funds to develop the shelter, a type of facility that removes obstacles that keep people from getting into some other facilities — such as their background, religious beliefs or issues with substance abuse.
Along with seeking a change in land use, the city would 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. Chattanooga would issue a request for proposals for an organization to operate the shelter. The building could have the capacity for 150-164 people depending on the final design.
Mayor Tim Kelly's spokesperson, Kevin Roig, said Thursday the transit building is still on the table, and the city will continue to work with neighbors to explore that option through December.
"At the same time, we are hearing out ideas expressed at the last meeting and are going to take hard looks at some alternatives using property the city already owns," he said in a text. "We'll walk and chew gum like that into the new year and see where things are."
William Smith has lived off Park Avenue in the M.L. King neighborhood for about 20 years. In that time, the number of homeless people in that area has increased, he said. He and his wife typically leave for the YMCA around 4:30 a.m., and they regularly see people sleeping on the church porch across the street from their house.
On one occasion, a man smoked a cigarette on their porch late at night while William and his wife were sleeping, which they learned after they found ashes outside and checked their security camera.
"That never occurred 20 years ago," he said in a phone call.
During the community meeting last week, Smith had questions about the rules and regulations that would be in place at the shelter and the ongoing cost of operating the facility. He still has those questions and more. Fundamentally, Smith is opposed to the proposed location.
Mark Stubblefield works at Five Star Food Service, which has an office at 412 E. 10th St. In a phone call, Stubblefield said he would like to see the implementation of a more robust data-sharing system between service providers, which would enable them to develop measurable goals and quantify the number of homeless people who are coming into Chattanooga from outside the community.
In a phone call, Brent Goldberg, vice chancellor for finance and administration at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, said it's great the city is taking more time to gather feedback. People seem to understand there's a need for a low-barrier homeless shelter, he said, but they have questions. The university doesn't have an opinion at this time about the location, he said.
Goldberg was at the community input session Nov. 1 about the project and had questions about enforcement. City officials have said they need a shelter so they have a place to bring homeless people, especially when property owners have someone they want removed, Goldberg noted. As is, police don't have many options.
"We recognize that issue, but there's also some due diligence that we have to do on behalf of our students and campus community to make sure the campus is safe," Goldberg said. "Part of that is asking questions about this proposed shelter."
For example, how does the city prevent the homeless population from spreading out from East 12th Street, he asked, and what happens to people who are kicked out of the shelter?
UTC is responsible for about 11,000 students, and 4,000 of those live on campus, Goldberg said.
"We just need to make sure we understand the ramifications of having a homeless shelter that doesn't currently exist within that proximity to campus," Goldberg said. "But we also know at UTC that there needs to be a solution, and we want to be part of the solution."