Chattanooga officials hope to place a 24/7 low-barrier homeless shelter in a transit building on East 12th Street, but at least some nearby community members have concerns and are asking neighbors to sign a petition opposing the project.
"We're not asking the homeless to leave," said Merri Mai Williamson, an approximately 19-year resident of the neighborhood who is helping organize the petition effort. "We're not asking the homeless service providers to leave. We're just saying we are past a tipping point.
"We cannot take on anymore," Williamson continued. "Please do not expand services in our neighborhood. Take the services to where the rest of the homeless people are throughout our community."
In July 2022, the city announced plans to use $2.84 million in federal pandemic relief funds to build a low-barrier homeless shelter, a more accessible type of facility that doesn't generally bar people based on, for example, their backgrounds, religious beliefs or issues with substance abuse. It's a tool Chattanooga has needed for a long time, homeless services providers said, and city leaders will have a code of conduct for residents.
"Low barrier does not mean no barrier," the city's director of homeless initiatives, Casey Tinker, said in an interview. "We're still going to have rules and regulations that a person has to follow."
This month, the city submitted an application to the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission asking the panel to change the use of 710 E. 12th St. from transportation to low barrier residential. The panel will consider the request during its meeting at 1 p.m. Nov. 13 in the fourth floor chambers at the Hamilton County Courthouse. The city will also hold two community meetings with nearby property owners about the project in November.
The building at 710 E. 12th St. used to house CARTA's door-to-door transit division, which has since moved to a new location, according to CARTA interim Executive Director Jeff Smith. It has also acted as a pickup and drop-off point for Greyhound buses and houses a repair shop for the city's bike service.
The building was first constructed in 2010 by the Southeast Tennessee Human Resources Agency using funds from the Federal Transit Authority, Richard Beeland, the city's administrator of economic development, said in an interview. As a result, it had to be used for transportation-related purposes for a period of about 40 years.
CARTA eventually acquired the building, and Chattanooga officials ultimately identified it as a viable spot for the new low-barrier shelter. The city will have to buy out the remainder of the Federal Transit Authority's interest in the building, Beeland said, which could cost approximately $700,000. The city expects it can finish the project using the approximately $2.8 million set aside in federal funding, he said.
The building is within walking distance to 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.
"It's not designed to be a stopping point for somebody," Mayor Tim Kelly's spokesperson, Kevin Roig, said in an interview. "It's designed to be a transition for someone from the streets, into the shelter, into permanent housing."
A flyer being sent to residents by the M.L. King Neighborhood Association says the shelter could be four stories tall and would allow people who are violent offenders, sex offenders, juvenile offenders and those convicted of manufacturing and distributing drugs.
But city officials said the city won't allow sex offenders in the building or those with drug manufacturing convictions. The shelter will have metal detectors at the entrance, cameras and security on-site at all times. It will only serve children accompanied by an adult and will have separate areas for single men, women and families, which will be enforced by staff and through key card access.
The city will freshen the facade of 710 E. 12th St. and renovate the interior, but it will not make any additions to the existing two-story structure. The shelter will have a zero-tolerance policy on violence or drug use on the property.
People who are homeless can have violent offenses on their record, Tinker noted.
"That does not mean they are a violent criminal," he said. "Sometimes, they fight for their lives to stay alive while they're on the street. That should not cause them to not be able to have a place to sleep at night."
The city doesn't want past addiction or mental health issues to disqualify someone from staying at the shelter, Tinker said. Using a housing first approach, Chattanooga officials aim to offer workforce development opportunities as well as addiction and mental health treatment on-site.
People staying at the shelter will have their own space with secure lockers to store personal items. It will be open at all hours of the day and night. The city also intends to enable people to bring pets into the building, which can be an obstacle at other shelters.
In a phone call, Williamson said her neighborhood is at a critical moment.
"They put a sanctioned camp in, and now our neighborhood is not safe anymore," she said. "It's not a place where you feel like you can just walk up and down the street."
In May 2022, the city entered into a yearlong contract with a local nonprofit, Help Right Here, to run a temporary sanctioned encampment at the corner of 12th and Peeples streets. After the city was unable to secure new bids that met its criteria, Chattanooga decided to wind down the project and is moving the remaining residents into permanent housing.
The number of homeless people in Williamson's neighborhood has increased dramatically, she said.
"We constantly have people on our streets that are talking to themselves and doing all manner of things they shouldn't be doing — exposing themselves, defecating on the side of buildings, sleeping on porches," she said. "I had a guy just walk up on my porch and make himself at home when I didn't answer the door. This was after 11 o' clock at night."
Cities that have made strides in reducing homelessness have typically used two complementary tools: supportive services and a 24/7 low-barrier emergency shelter, said Baron King, CEO of the Chatt Foundation.
"That gets people off the street, it provides safety and structure, it meets health and hygiene needs," King said in a phone call. "But the big thing that it does is it allows people to take the next steps to self-sufficiency."
Without a secure place to store them, people living on the streets are at perpetual risk of having their possessions stolen, King said, which can hamper someone who is looking for a job.
"When I left for work this morning, I locked up my house, and I don't think about it again," King said. "But if I have to leave my belongings in a tent and go to a job, there's a good chance it's not going to be there when I get back."
Generally, low-barrier shelters have limited prerequisites for entry. Occupants aren't barred because of their religious beliefs, their backgrounds or if they have a history of substance abuse, King said. Existing shelter options in Chattanooga are neither low-barrier nor open at all hours, King said. As a result, people without stable shelter could lose opportunities to work second- or third-shift jobs.
King said he can understand any neighborhood having concerns about a shelter, but the area around Onion Bottom near M.L. King Boulevard is already experiencing blight.
"The sex offenders, the drug dealers, the violent criminals — they're right here right now," King said. "It's not like the shelter is going to attract people with criminal records. These people exist right here right now."