Hoping to provide a safe space to recuperate, the Chatt Foundation will reopen a 10-bed recovery center Monday for homeless people who have been recently discharged from the hospital.
"Being under a tarp or in a tent is not conducive to somebody recovering from surgery or illness," Chatt Foundation CEO Baron King said in a phone call. "Most of the unsheltered homeless individuals in this area are vulnerable to begin with, and if you're made more vulnerable by a surgery — especially by an amputation — it really lessens your chances of survival."
The program has funding for six months, and King said the Chatt Foundation hopes to attract additional partners to extend that time period.
"Our mission calls us to care for everyone, especially the vulnerable," Betsy Kammerdiener, the mission director at CHI Memorial, said in an email. "People experiencing homelessness are among the most vulnerable in our community. Partnering with agencies like the Chatt Foundation to provide health care beyond the hospital allows us to extend healing in new and vital ways."
CommonSpirit Health, the parent company for CHI Memorial Hospital, is funding the initiative through a federal pandemic grant, according to the Chatt Foundation. Organizers expect the six-month pilot period will need between $250,000 and $300,000.
The organization has been involved in homeless health care for years, Kammerdiener said
"What we're trying to do is be a part of helping to end homelessness by working with partners like the Chatt Foundation to not only provide medical care but also to help individuals move from homelessness to permanent housing," she said. "Medical respite is a steppingstone to achieving that goal."
The Homeless Health Care Center will provide staffing and medical care while patients are in the recovery center.
"We recognize that the hospitals don't want to see a revolving door," King said. "By being discharged into unsheltered conditions, they're very likely to see the same patients return in a couple weeks. We think this benefits the hospitals, it benefits the overall community and the individuals recovering."
The Chatt Foundation, 727 E. 11th St., is a key service provider for the local homeless population, providing food, clothing and employment assistance. Thanks to help from local partners, the Chatt Foundation secured funding in 2009 to renovate space at its building on 11th street to provide respite care for up to 10 people.
Those partnerships were vital to keeping the respite center running, but the funding needed to operate the facility fell through before the pandemic.
Officials with CommonSpirit Health approached the Chatt Foundation about 11 months ago to discuss reopening the respite program, King said.
The typical length of stay would be two weeks, but there's no hard and fast rule, King said. Some people may take longer to recover. Chattanooga's office of homelessness and supportive housing has agreed to help patients search for permanent housing, King said. There will also be 24/7 security at the center.
Staff realized there was a need for a dedicated recovery center after discovering a man searching for food in the Chatt Foundation's dumpster, King said. That was around 2008, King said, and the patient was a tree trimmer who had recently undergone surgery that required staples from his hip down to his ankle.
The man's wound was infected, and he had to return to the hospital for further treatment. About a week later, staff found him in the dumpster again.
"This time, we realized that he just didn't have a safe place to rehabilitate," King said.
Employees set up a cot in the dining room and took shifts watching him until he could care for himself.
"That was really the genesis of the idea that something needed to be done," King said.
It's also a good example why hospitals should support the program, the CEO said.
"Instead of seeing patients two or three times for one illness, having a safe clean supervised respite center can reduce the traffic through the health care facilities," he said.