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Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 12/11/15. Members with Relevant Hope out of the Hixson United Methodist Church delivers care packages to a homeless camp off of Hixson Pike on Friday, December 11, 2015.

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Hope for the homeless

Tony Smith is driving through Brainerd, looking for an old homeless man he hasn't seen in weeks.

Smith is out solo, without his team of fellow volunteers from Hixson United Methodist Church, this October morning. He fiddles with the air conditioning and radio. He has attention deficit disorder and can't sit still for more than a couple of seconds.

He stops by some homeless camps — one hidden in the woods behind a department store, another by a cellphone tower — and chats with some of the people there. He asks the same question at the end of each conversation.

"Have you seen Gabo?"

You know, Gabo. The gentle, old man with a white beard and bright blue eyes. He's a Vietnam War veteran. He's been homeless for years but was on the path to permanent housing.

The ultimate goal of the group from Hixson is to get homeless people off the streets and into permanent housing. Gabo was about to do that. Then he disappeared.

One guy might have seen him in a camp tucked in the woods.

Smith walks into the camp and starts snapping pictures: a bottle of hot sauce on a dresser, a camouflage hat hanging from a tree branch. Gabo's camouflage hat. He has to be close.

Maybe Gabo was hanging out at the Wal-Mart parking lot. Smith sometimes sees homeless people flying, better known as panhandling, around there.

Smith needs to find him. He's been working with the homeless population in Chattanooga for two years. But his need goes beyond wanting to help Gabo. April marked the two-year anniversary of his own tragedy. Maybe he'll never completely heal. Maybe that's why he's always fidgeting and talking; he needs to keep his mind occupied. He can't fall back into depression. He needs to provide that support provided to him that week in the hospital full of tears and questions about organ donations for his 4-year-old son.

Smith drives through the lot. He keeps turning the radio knob down even though it's been off the whole time. He sighs and turns for the main road.

"He's not here."

***

On a cold night in January, more than 50 volunteers met in downtown Chattanooga to conduct a homelessness census coordinated by the Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition. The organization later reported a total of 527 homeless individuals across 11 counties in Chattanooga and Southeast Tennessee, down from 634 in 2015.

The drop from last year is significant, but the total can be thought of more as a floor for the actual number than an exact count. Volunteers work hard to find as many homeless people during the census as they can, but getting a reliable headcount can be difficult because the homeless often are transient.

As volunteers wandered from camp to camp, they found many of them had been deserted by their inhabitants. As to where they had gone, no one could say.

Stephen Wright, executive director of the coalition, said the point-in-time count is designed to give caseworkers and organizations a "snapshot" of the size of the homeless population, but the number could be much higher.

He said the count helps give them an idea of what they're working with, but "on any given night, there may be three times more than that going to sleep without a roof over their head."

"There's a lot more homeless out there who may not even want to be found," he said.

Still, the count and what it indicates about the homeless population is important. Every year, several dozen volunteers gather downtown to carry out their mission, trudging through mud, pushing through bushes and scrambling up highway overpasses to find those society has forgotten.

It's encouraging for caseworkers to see this year's drop in homelessness, but many of the realities behind this year's number are still sobering. Of those 527 people, 96 were children under the age of 18 who were living in emergency or transitional housing.

***

Some of the city's homeless live on the streets or in shelters, but many live in camps just past the border of society. Behind a grocery store in the woods. Scattered along a railroad track. Tucked on the side of an abandoned building downtown. Camps, varying in size from one to a dozen inhabitants, exist throughout the city as the homeless try to survive.

Relevant Hope, an organization focused on transitioning people from homelessness to housing, has confirmed 60 locations in Chattanooga where homeless people live or set up camps. But the locations are constantly in flux. Communities move from one camp from another for a variety of reasons. Dillon Burroughs and

"The goal is to get people into housing," said Dillon Burroughs, who with Jimmy Turner started the organization in 2013. "That is the main issue: you're trying to address homelessness by making people not homeless."

They remember their first day. It wasn't going well. They weren't finding anybody. Then they spotted a man under a bridge and started talking. He pointed out other camp locations and their network took off. Two years later, they say they've helped more than 100 people find permanent housing.

In 2013, Smith's team from Hixson United Methodist Church started visiting homeless camps.

Kevin Gray, the leader of the group, saw a woman on the side of the road holding a sign.

"Jesus was homeless, too."

The message struck a chord with him. A replica of that sign hangs in the basement of the church, and the woman who was holding it is now a friend, and living indoors.

"You really just begin to love these people," Gray said. "And then they become friends."

The Hixson team and Relevant Hope work as partners. To be as efficient as possible, Relevant Hope makes sure different teams in different parts of Chattanooga aren't covering the same ground.

When Turner and Burroughs walk into a homeless camp for the first time, the first step is determining how many people live there. They need to know as much as possible about the situation before they can help.

If people are there, then they just talk to them and feel out who the leader is. If they can get the leader on board with what they're saying, there's a much better chance to get respect throughout the camp.

The goal is to have a conversation. The team wants the camp's trust and to be on an equal level.

The Hixson team sometimes goes into a situation with just two people so they don't overwhelm the camp. Gray tells the team members to get to know them as people, not just as homeless.

If no one's at the camp, they investigate the scene. They look for McDonald's cups because those decompose quickly. If they're intact and the colors vibrant, that means the camp has recently been occupied. Is there condensation on the Powerade bottles? Have clothes started to dry rot from abandonment, or is it simply a laundry pile? Does the trail have weeds growing on it or look well traveled?

Examining a camp becomes second nature after a while. Turner can look at a beer can and tell if it's a day, week or several months old.

In his experience, camps that are homey-looking signify women living there. Even if women are living outdoors in the elements, they'll still try to make their area feel like home, he said. Men don't really do that.

Then, they canvass the area. Turner likes to walk into gas stations or stores and ask if someone's been using the phone consistently. People in homeless camps will live around areas where they have immediate access to those services.

Chattanooga Police Department Lt. Scott Fulgham, who's been on the force for nearly two decades, said there is no specific law against homeless camps in Chattanooga. He said homeless people are removed from camps on private property only if the owners have filed complaints. And just because there are homeless people on private property doesn't mean they are breaking the law.

"Everybody has their rights," Fulgham said. "For me to go on someone's property and say, 'You can't be there,' I don't know if they were told or not they could be there. If we see something illegal going on, then we deal with it. But if we don't, we have to sometimes make the assumption that they've been allowed to stay there."

When police receive a complaint, Fulgham said, one of the goals is to learn the person's circumstances and connect them with agencies in town that can help them.

It's all about providing something that maybe they've never had before.

"They don't have a support system," Turner said. "And that's what usually causes someone to be homeless. We can blame it on mental illness, we can blame it on addiction, we can blame it on economic downturn, job loss and criminal background, but ultimately it comes down to a support system of friends and family. If they don't have that, then none of that other stuff matters anyway."

***

The team finally gets a lead that Gabo is hanging out behind a store in Hixson.

When they find him, he's lying on cardboard, baking in the autumn morning sun. He perks up when he sees the team.

"Where have you been?" Gray asked.

"Oh..." Gabo trailed off, waving his hand.

While Gabo talks with other members of the group, Gray is on his phone trying to get Gabo in a motel until he can start the application for a housing voucher again. Smith tells the store owner they'll be back for Gabo once they find a motel for the week. They need Gabo to be in one place while they help him fill out his paperwork.

"Gabo," Gray said, "if we get you a place, will you stay there? Until we can get something else for you?"

"Yeah, yeah," Gabo said. "I'd like that a lot."

The team is ecstatic.

"You can see hurt in his eyes," Smith said. "You can feel that when he talks. You know that deep down, he has a different goal for himself. A different purpose. And there's so many layers to get through that brokenness."

Smith knows what it's like to feel broken. On the last Sunday in March 2014, he got the call that changed his life.

"He's not breathing," his ex-wife said. "Get to the hospital. Now."

Will, their 4-year-old son, had fallen into a river during a hike. A man found him downstream 15 minutes later and administered CPR. At Erlanger Health System, machines kept Will alive.

"I've seen some miracles, and I've seen some miracles not happen," he said. "And I didn't know which way this was going to go."

During that week, people from his church, Hixson United Methodist, visited Erlanger to sit with Smith. He has no idea how many people were there, but the lady at the front desk told him in her 15 years at Erlanger she'd never seen that kind of support.

Six days after Will's fall, doctors said he had no brain activity. Smith and his ex-wife decided the boy would be an organ donor. On Saturday, April 5, Will was wheeled into the operating room.

When Smith thinks about that week, he thinks of the people that came to see him.

"You cannot make it through without that," he said. "You cannot make it through without support. And that's the bottom line, driving force — people need support."

***

When the Hixson team started in 2013, they were constantly struggling with enabling instead of helping.

They used to bring groceries to one camp. It was a high, Gray said. So they brought more groceries. Over time, they realized they weren't actually helping.

Those in the camp stopped doing things for themselves. They started making particular grocery orders. Some were addicts, so the Hixson team was accidentally allowing them to save money for drugs and alcohol.

"These middle-class people were coming up with all this food, and it put us at a level higher with them," Gray said. "They're the people that need, and we're the people that supply, rather than developing a relationship."

That's when the Hixson team realized they didn't know how to help. They met with Turner, who stressed the importance of building relationships and trust, and using that trust to talk to people.

Now when they go out, they bring a goodie bag of immediate needs — socks, underwear, snacks, a water bottle, a note of encouragement. When they walk up to a homeless person, they don't want to be seen as a vehicle to get stuff. They want to be seen as people who can help them get to their final destination.

It's a process that takes time, one the team is trying to perfect. They've built up trust with several people, though, and helped them find housing.

Turner and Burroughs remember their first day when they found Perry Ryan, whose friends know him as "Sky," a nickname he picked up from his old drug days.

Ryan was rough around the edges. He liked solitude. The first meeting didn't go well, but Turner and Burroughs kept coming back. Eventually they established a relationship with Ryan, and he told them his story.

Ryan, in his late 50s, had been an alcoholic for 40 years, drinking beer every morning.

"All I had to worry about was getting $5 to get drunk again," Ryan said. "That was my whole life."

In camps, he preferred living by himself, but lived with a few other people to keep thieves away.

"Most camps are what I would consider no man's land," Ryan said. "Where nobody else wants to live."

He got sober and hasn't had a drink since Nov. 6, 2013. Now, he's been living indoors for a couple of weeks and works full time for Turner at the Chattanooga Community Kitchen. Asked about the case they're most proud of, Turner and Burroughs both say it was Ryan.

"This guy has gone from the stereotype of homelessness to one of the greatest success stories that I could ever imagine," Turner said. "He's giving back to the very community that he worked himself out of."

***

Gabo is gone. Again. It's been a month since the Hixson team put him up in a motel. They checked on him multiple times the next week. Each time he wasn't there.

"Do we know where he is?" one Hixson team member asked during a meeting in December.

"No," Gray said. He looked down. "No location."

Sometimes, that's part of the process for the Hixson team. They can't get too invested. They can only help so much. They'll keep looking for Gabo, though.

Smith sat on his couch, talking about what's next in his life. Pictures of Will surround him on the walls. Providing this support system is wearing on him. He doesn't know how much longer he can continue working with the homeless. He wants to write a book, detailing his experience in hopes it can help other parents who lose children. Maybe he can provide support to people that way.

He gets off the couch and walks to the corner with a dining room chair sitting outside a door. It was Will's timeout chair. A white cross sits on it now. Will's name is painted in blue letters on the cross. There's also a Bible verse, Matthew 19:14.

Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these."

The door leads to Will's room. Smith opens the door. Toys are scattered all over the floor. A former homeless family came over recently, and the children were playing in the room.

"It's kinda messy," he said. He closed the door, leaving the light on. "But that's OK."

Staff writer Emmett Gienapp contributed to this story.

Contact Emmett Gienapp at 423-757-6731 or egienapp@timesfreepress.com.

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