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Mayor Andy Berke

Mayor Andy Berke claimed success Thursday in his pledge to end veteran homelessness in Chattanooga.

The achievement was affirmed in a letter from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, which the mayor's office received on Feb. 3. A copy of the letter was reprinted on a 5-foot-tall sign on display in front of Berke's podium as he made the announcement before a crowd of about 100 people at the National Guard Armory.

"We are confident that the infrastructure and systems you have built will ensure that any Veteran experiencing homelessness in Chattanooga will get the support they need to quickly obtain a permanent home," read the letter from Matthew Doherty, the federal agency's executive director.

Berke said the achievement was the result of a collaboration of several local agencies including the Chattanooga Homeless Coalition, the Community Kitchen and the city's own homelessness program.

"These saints got to work. They scoped out apartments, drove veterans to appointments, prodded landlords into making space available, and so much more. And at the end of the day, they figured out a solution," Berke said.

Since the announcement in 2014 of Berke's initiative to end veteran homelessness in Chattanooga, 244 homeless veterans have been placed in permanent housing, according to numbers provided by the mayor's office.

"From the very beginning, we said, 'We're here to end homelessness, starting with our veterans,'" said Heather Hoffman, the city's homeless coordinator.

There is still a handful of homeless veterans in Chattanooga, Hoffman said, but the underscored message of Thursday's event was that veterans who become homeless are now placed in permanent housing within an average of 90 days or less.

Hoffman said her office does not formally track recidivism rates, so it is difficult to say how many of those veterans remained in their permanent housing over the long term, but anecdotally Hoffman said she only knows of about six who had to be relocated.

She said one of the biggest achievements of the last few years was developing and strengthening the housing process with help from local agencies because it helped create a blueprint for how to do the same thing with other demographics.

"The important thing is showing people that this can be done," she said.

Stephen Wright, executive director of the coalition, cheered Thursday's announcement, saying it was "the start of something big."

"This is great news. To be able to reach this goal is tremendous," he said. "There's a lot more outreach now than there was two years ago."

However, he acknowledged that veterans make up only 15 to 20 percent of the homeless population in Chattanooga. Wright echoed Hoffman's point that one of the most significant aspects of the work done thus far will be its application to other groups experiencing homelessness.

"We'll piggyback off this success," he said.

Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at egienapp@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6731. Follow him on Twitter @emmettgienapp.

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