Opinion: Bringing homelessness home

Staff file photo by Matt Hamilton / Ann-Marie Fitzsimmons, left, talks to Eric Durrett, right, and others as they assemble a tent at the homeless camp at the intersection of 12th Street and Peeples streets on Friday, Oct. 28, 2022.
Staff file photo by Matt Hamilton / Ann-Marie Fitzsimmons, left, talks to Eric Durrett, right, and others as they assemble a tent at the homeless camp at the intersection of 12th Street and Peeples streets on Friday, Oct. 28, 2022.

Chattanooga and the surrounding area are confronting many issues related to growth and development, such as the pros and cons of significant projects like the new Lookouts Stadium and future of McDonald Farm and the Bend. These projects and the multiple apartment/townhome developments that are cropping up every month put a spotlight on growth in the area.

But when we talk about growth, we must not lose sight of the most vulnerable of our citizenry who will need the community's help now more than ever. For Chattanooga, that's the homeless community.

There are some bright spots

Chattanooga's 2023 point-in-time count of the homeless showed a 40% reduction from 2022 in the number of unsheltered people. The overall number of people experiencing homelessness, including those living in temporary shelters, decreased by 32%, according to city data.

We're making strides, but it doesn't hurt to reinforce the need for education on who the homeless are and what we can do to help them achieve stability and a sense of safety and security.

We need lots of help to solve homelessness, to shorten the cycle of people moving from homeless to housed.

More than just dedicated social workers, city administrators and activists, we need landlords and property owners who will take a leap of faith and accept people experiencing homelessness.

To boost the housing options for the homeless and to encourage landlords to become part of the solution, the city is putting human and financial resources into the challenge.

Partners in the solution

David Grabiner is one of 175 landlords and property owners who partner with the city and accept people experiencing homelessness as tenants. He learned about the efforts the city was undertaking over the last several years while serving as a member of a landlord association. He decided to explore the options. His research prompted him to participate. That was five years ago.

In deciding to accept people experiencing homelessness as tenants, Grabiner applied his philosophy of casting a wide net to attract as many tenants as reasonably possible through the Housing Choice Voucher Program (what used to known as Section 8).

"What really kills a landlord's profit is turnover and vacancy," Grabiner said Wednesday in a phone interview. "If you have your unit vacant for two months out of a year, you make zero profit. My goal was always to let me try to reduce vacancy and reduce turnover so I wasn't always trying to get the highest rent possible. I was trying to get tenants who will stay, and when I do have vacancies, that I fill them quicker."

Grabiner has 200 duplexes and apartments scattered across Hamilton County and the North Georgia area in places such as Red Bank, East Ridge and Rossville, Ga.

Data from the city's Office of Homelessness and Supportive Housing reports that in the 2024 fiscal year so far, the city has helped and supported 505 people. The previous fiscal year saw 778 people housed.

OHSH offers support to many people who experience homelessness in a variety of ways.

"The clients we work with are brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, sons and daughters who have fallen into hard times financially or otherwise," Casey Tinker, director of Homeless Initiatives for Chattanooga, said Wednesday. "They are predominantly what we refer to as 'Category One,' meaning they are living on streets, under bridges, or in their cars; but they need some help navigating a complicated system to get into a more secure situation."

Meaningful progress

Clearly, there's still work to be done to help the homeless population. OHSH says that both the Airport Inn on Lee Highway and the low barrier shelter on 12th Street are currently stalled. We shouldn't expect either to be renovated and open for service this year.

Government can be frustratingly slow, so the best thing we can do in the meantime is remain focused on what is in front of us while planning for the homeless service improvements to come.

Chattanooga is scoring some wins. People who've struggled to get into a stable housing situation are getting help and support. Do not underestimate the power and value of a solid roof over a family's head: employment prospects improve, children thrive, individual health and well-being also improve.

Interrupting the cycle of homelessness isn't just putting people in homes. It might just hinge on all of us unlearning harmful stereotypes that keep us from seeing these people and the potential for change.

It takes all of us.

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