Kennedy: CSAS teachers team up to help the homeless

Kennedy: CSAS teachers team up to help the homeless

March 13th, 2019 by Mark Kennedy in Life Entertainment
CSAS educators Ann-Marie Fitzsimmons and Niki Keck pose in front of a bus they hope to purchase to serve the homeless. / Contributed photo by Deva Holdson

Two Chattanooga School for the Arts & Sciences educators, both single moms, are hoping to raise $6,000 to buy a used tour bus.

They want to convert it into a "survival support" vehicle to deliver tents, clothes and other supplies to homeless camps around Chattanooga.

The two also want to offer the homeless hot showers powered by solar panels on the roof of the bus. They dream of equipping the vehicle with a portable office for writing resumes, practicing job interviews and working on GEDs.

A couple of years ago, Ann-Marie Fitzsimmons, a librarian at CSAS, and Niki Keck, an English teacher there, were just colleagues exchanging polite hellos in the hallways of the school on East Third Street. By happenstance, their paths crossed at the Community Kitchen downtown on East 11th Street, sparking a friendship kindled by their shared interest in helping homeless folks.

Keck was involved in student outreach to the shelter and Fitzsimmons was promoting fitness in the homeless population through the Chattanooga Track Club. They continue to work with CSAS students, who are making a documentary about homelessness in Chattanooga.

Several years ago, Fitzsimmons began delivering firewood and other necessities to homeless encampments around the city from her big Chevy van, which is decorated with a red racing stripe on the side. She calls it her "A-Team" van after the hit 1980s television show.

"I would just drive around with all this stuff in my van," Fitzsimmons said. "You just run into [homeless] people driving down the street.'"

Fitzsimmons has become so associated with providing for the homeless that people at CSAS pile donations into her van, even when she's not around.

"I'll open it and be like, 'I don't know how the h—— any of this got in here," she said, laughing.

At first, the pair looked for a brick-and-mortar location on 11th Street, the epicenter of homeless services in Chattanooga, to set up shop. They struck out, but soon hit on the idea of taking their volunteer services on the road.

Mark Kennedy

Mark Kennedy

Photo by Staff File Photo /Times Free Press.

"We need to meet [the homeless] where they are," Keck said.

The women say Chattanooga's homeless tend to cluster in camps that can stretch from St. Elmo in the southern part of the city to Ooltewah in the north.

"Everything [for the homeless] in this complex on 11th street, and some of these camps where people live are way out on Gunbarrel," Keck said.

Fitzsimmons and Keck have started a crowdfunding campaign on GoFundMe. They have located a bus, formerly a musicians' tour bus, they think will work. They have raised about $2,000 so far toward their goal of $6,000. The name of their outreach is "Help Right Here."

In their GoFundMe pitch, they note that a government report showed a 10 percent increase in the number of unsheltered homeless in Chattanooga between 2016 and 2018.

"Our goal is that we want to do this full time," Keck said. "I don't feel like the people of Chattanooga are going to let us down."

To donate to the cause, go to GoFundMe and search for "Help Right Here."

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com and 423-757-6645.

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