Nonprofit plans $25 million investment in 100-home campus for homeless veterans in Chattanooga

Contributed rendering / Concept art shows the proposed Freedom Homestead community.
Contributed rendering / Concept art shows the proposed Freedom Homestead community.

A faith-based nonprofit group intends to invest $25 million in a 100-home campus that would serve as transitional housing for local homeless veterans in Chattanooga seeking a permanent place to live.

Using $12.5 million from the Heart of a Lion Foundation, the Atlanta-based organization Frontline Response has announced plans to develop the nearly 100-acre facility over a three-year period.

Known as the "Freedom Homestead," the property would contain about 100 homes that would each be about 245 square feet. The homes would include kitchens containing a sink, stove and refrigerator; a bathroom with a full-size shower and toilet; floor-to-ceiling windows; and mechanical systems for HVAC, water, power and waste. The homes would be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Frontline Response intends to raise an additional $12.5 million for the project, bringing the total to $25 million, with the goal of there being no need for taxpayer funding from the city or Hamilton County.

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

"When we serve within a community, we want to be a part of the framework and tapestry of what's happening in that community," Jeff Shaw, national expansion officer for Frontline Response, said in a phone call.

Frontline Response chose Chattanooga over Atlanta, Houston and Sacramento, California, for the project. Vika Living would provide the housing units, and Frontline Response would also work with the Veterans Empowerment Organization, the Chattanooga Area Veterans Council, and Warriors Set Free to provide wraparound services at the site.

Frontline Response met with local faith leaders, nonprofit organizations, city officials, veteran advocates and judges as it was identifying the best city for the program, which Frontline Response officials hope will serve as a model that can expand to other areas, Shaw said.

The lack of red tape in Chattanooga was appealing, Shaw said, and local leaders were also receptive to assisting with the effort. Chattanooga will help Frontline Response place temporary residents at the campus into permanent housing. The city is also about two hours away from the organization's national headquarters in Atlanta, making it a convenient location for the community, Shaw said.

The organization would offer mental health services at the facility and case management to help develop individualized care plans for veterans. The organization also intends to use brain mapping technology to more precisely treat people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injuries. Frontline Response will be working with Hamilton County to find the best land for the project, Shaw said, which officials haven't yet identified.

In the first year, the group will put together a conceptual design for the campus and will seek additional funding from donors. Frontline Response aims to construct community facilities and the initial housing units in year two, with plans to complete the build-out and move residents to the site in year three.

The organization doesn't want to have vacant units on the campus, and although the priority will be for unhoused veterans, any remaining homes could be available for nonveterans experiencing homelessness, Shaw said.

In the near future, the organization will assemble an advisory council that will provide input during the design phase.

The campus could also feature a chapel, hiking, a gym and recreation area, workforce training facilities and a veterans care clinic. Additionally, a rendering shared by the nonprofit shows space for a 100-bed recovery center for trafficking victims, although Shaw said that's not yet set in stone.

"We're discussing all the options, but the only thing for certain at this point is the 100 units for veterans," Shaw said in a text. "If we do something for trafficking victims, it will likely be a home that can house up to 10 residents at a time."

Founded in 2003, Frontline Response has helped 1,700 victims out of sex trafficking through outreach, rescue, emergency housing and serving on the Georgia Statewide Human Trafficking Hotline, according to the organization. Residents living on the campus would also have the option of participating in Frontline Response's anti-trafficking work, Shaw said, noting some veterans can suffer from a lack of purpose once returning to civilian life after years in the military.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga prepares to wind down sanctioned homeless camp)

"We really see the opportunity to offer veterans a way to activate into the anti-trafficking space," Shaw said. "We have a really cool base of volunteers who are veterans that have said, 'Oh, this is giving me a new purpose since coming out of the service of a way that I can still continue to help save lives and make a difference for people.'"


Filling a need

This spring, the region celebrated a 31% decline in overall homelessness following the annual count in January, which showed sheltered and unsheltered homelessness reduced from 1,144 people in 2022 to 785 in 2023. Hamilton County did, however, see the number of homeless veterans increase slightly from 28 in 2022 to 50 in 2023.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the estimated number of veterans experiencing homelessness nationwide has declined 55.3% since 2010. A 2022 count tallied a total of 33,129 homeless veterans across the U.S.

"I think there is a very important need for it," said Casey Tinker, Chattanooga's director of homeless initiatives, said about Frontline Response's project. "Not only are they going to be serving veterans, but they're going to be serving victims of human trafficking. With us having a VA in town, we're always going to have a homeless veteran coming through because this is where they come for services. ... I think it's something we don't have anywhere around us, so this is huge for us."

Although she's still learning the details of the project. Mackenzie Kelly, the interim director of the Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition, said in a phone call that she expects the facility could also serve veterans in outlying counties or those who could have been missed during the annual count.

"I think it will absolutely fill a gap," she said.

Retired U.S. Navy Capt. Mickey McCamish heads a local coalition focused on assisting veterans. Several years ago, McCamish was trying develop an approximately seven-unit transitional housing facility off East 11th Street, which would have also offered job and life skills training for veterans in need of employment. The estimated price tag for the project, $3 million, ended up being a heavy lift, and the pandemic further complicated plans for the space.

McCamish met with Frontline Response in the spring, he said, and is eager to see the new project move forward.

"It's getting something off the ground that we've all wanted to do for a period of time but just didn't have the financial resources," he said in a phone call. "That was our biggest barrier."

In a text, Mayor Weston Wamp's spokesperson, Mary Francis Hoots, said Hamilton County was only made aware of the project a few weeks ago.

"We look forward to working with Frontline to explore opportunities for a partnership," she said.

Contact David Floyd at dfloyd@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.

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