Hamilton County pushes for different metric to count the area’s homeless population

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton/  East 11th Street bustles with activity outside the Chatt Foundation on Wednesday. Chatt is short for Center for Homeless Advancement for Today and Tomorrow. The organization was previously known as the Chattanooga Community Kitchen.
Staff photo by Matt Hamilton/ East 11th Street bustles with activity outside the Chatt Foundation on Wednesday. Chatt is short for Center for Homeless Advancement for Today and Tomorrow. The organization was previously known as the Chattanooga Community Kitchen.

In an effort to better measure the level of homelessness in the area, Hamilton County is pushing for a different metric than typically used to count the number of people experiencing homelessness.

Homelessness is typically measured through an annual count, an effort required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to count the number of people experiencing homelessness on one night in January in communities across the nation.

The Chattanooga area's count from January, conducted by the Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition, showed a decrease in the unsheltered homeless population compared to 2022's count.

Annual count of unsheltered people experiencing homelessness

— 2019: 181.

— 2020: 201.

— 2021: 364.

— 2022: 1,008.

— 2023: 607.

Source: Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition


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

For the county, however, officials see a more accurate way to measure homelessness in the area. In the county's first "Hamilton Counted" report, an effort to communicate important data to residents through monthly reports, the county cites data from the Hamilton County Homeless Health Care Center measuring the number of street patients served from January to July in 2022 and 2023.

The numbers from that report, which is led by the county's senior data analyst, Jennifer Baggett, suggest sustained levels of homelessness in the area.

The discrepancies in the numbers may be due to the January count's limited scope, Baggett said in an interview.

"The point-in-time count is just that. It's a point in time. It's a snapshot over one day in January," Baggett said. "Whereas the data I use ... from the Homeless Health Care Center is a more long-term and accurate point of data, where services are being used by the homeless community. It's a big indicator of the homeless population right now in Hamilton County. You basically have a snapshot versus seven months of data."

Street patients served at county Homeless Health Care Center

— January-July 2022: 1,105.

— January-July 2023: 1,160.

Source: Hamilton County Homeless Health Care Center


Baggett does not think patient data from the county Homeless Health Care Center prior to 2022 is available, she said in a text.

"And if it is, it would take a while to obtain," she said.

Baggett, who previously worked as a data analyst for the Chattanooga Police Department, was hired by the county earlier this year to lead the Hamilton Counted reports, which also measure crime and opioid overdoses. Her $85,000 annual salary is funded through the county's allotment of the state's opioid abatement funds, according to a county news release from March.


Mackenzie Kelly, deputy director of the Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition, said in an interview the January count is the most accurate measure of people experiencing homelessness in the community. She said the patients at the Homeless Health Care Center are actively seeking services.

"Not all of our unsheltered population are actively receiving services," Kelly said. "As far as our count of unsheltered, the point-in-time count is the most accurate count we have on that."

Based on the decreased number from that count, it is fair to conclude that homelessness is decreasing in the area, Kelly said.

"I think that speaks to a lot of positive housing placements that we have seen from a lot different providers in our community," she said.

Karen Guinn, director of homeless health services for the Hamilton County Health Department, said in an interview that based on the Homeless Health Care Center's numbers, officials are seeing more people living on the street.

"They're living in camps. They're living in their vehicles," Guinn said. "They're living in abandoned buildings. Maybe they are living in abandoned houses, and we're seeing an increase."

The homeless coalition initially planned to conduct another mid-year count over the summer, but Kelly said the coalition decided it was best to wait for the annual count in January.

This is not due to a lack of resources or funding, she said.

"We do try to spread our resources, so that we are serving more than we spend time simply counting," Kelly said. "But I do think that a summer count is possible."

She said the coalition is considering summer counts in the future.

Competing definitions

While the designations of people experiencing homelessness used by both the Homeless Health Care Center and the homeless coalition in their data are similar, they are different.

The Homeless Health Care Center uses its own definition of a street patient while the homeless coalition uses the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development definition of an unsheltered person experiencing homelessness.

Definitions of people experiencing homelessness

— Unsheltered: "Individuals and families sleeping in a place not designed for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation (e.g., abandoned buildings, train stations or camping grounds)."

— Street patients: "Patients who are living outdoors, in a vehicle, in an encampment, in makeshift housing/shelter, or in other places generally not deemed safe or fit for human occupancy."

Sources: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Hamilton County Homeless Health Care Center

"Their street definition can be described as similar to the HUD definition of unsheltered," Baggett said. "Those are the people that are actually without a home, are probably staying in a place that should not be considered habitable for human occupancy."

The differences in the definitions could explain the higher numbers from the Homeless Health Care Center, Kelly said.

"They do count their street category a little bit differently than we do," Kelly said. "That is where I think some of the those discrepancies come from."

(READ MORE: Chattanooga rent increases outpace most cities)

In an email, Kelly also emphasized the coalition counts the number of sheltered people experiencing homeless. That number is typically lower than those unsheltered.

Due to the confined nature of the county, Kelly said those sheltered one night could quickly become unsheltered and not be counted in that designation at the time of the count.

"Though a person was in a shelter on the night of the count, it was a night-by-night emergency shelter, and they could easily be unsheltered the next night," Kelly said.

Elected officials' response

When the data from the January count was announced in April, the city of Chattanooga touted the results as evidence of decreasing homelessness.

"Chattanooga was in the midst of a homelessness crisis when I took office, and with support from local and federal partners, we took bold and decisive steps to start solving it," Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly said in an April news release. "The record-breaking progress we've made is a direct result of that work and a testament to what we can achieve when we work together."

The Homeless Health Care Center data is more reliable than other data measuring homelessness, Hamilton County Mayor Weston Wamp said in an interview.

"It's a county facility that serves a large volume of homeless people on an annual basis, and we have very good data about the circumstances in those people's lives," Wamp said. "I would argue it's more reliable than other data that exists relative to the homeless population in our community."

(READ MORE: Chattanooga mayor unveils plan to tackle affordable housing shortage)

In an emailed statement, a city spokesperson said the January count and the Hamilton Counted report measure different things.

"The Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition and its many community partners use a methodology approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to count the precise number of homeless individuals in our region at a specific point in time," the city spokesperson said. "Patient treatment data is also an important part of measuring progress, but it is a correlative piece of data, not a contradictory one."

'Difficult to count'

Kelly, deputy director of the homeless coalition, said the homeless population is inherently difficult to quantify.

"We are talking about a population that is difficult to count," Kelly said. "We're trying on the night of the count to hit as many locations as we possibly can, but who's to say we're able to see every single person? ... It is just a really hard population to count."

Though he sees the health care center numbers as more accurate, no count will fully encapsulate the issue, Wamp said.

"You've got to assume that given the urban location of the Homeless Health Care Center that a homeless person in the north end of the county or in Ooltewah may not be able to visit that center," Wamp said. "We know that the problem is even larger than those numbers."

Even with the challenge with counting the homeless population, more must be done to house more people, the city spokesperson said in an email.

"Homelessness is a complex issue to quantify, even for experts who have been doing it for years, but the number of homeless individuals in our city a year ago matters less than our trajectory today," the city spokesperson said.

The spokesperson cited efforts by the city to house people experiencing homelessness.

"Yet there is still an enormous need for housing and housing assistance as we continue to fight off the lingering effects of the global pandemic," the spokesperson continued.

Contact Ben Sessoms at bsessoms@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.

Upcoming Events