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Keim Shirley, right, and Tracy Corello stand outside the tent they share in a homeless encampment behind the city's wellness center on East 11th Street on Friday, April 6, 2018, in Chattanooga, Tenn. City service coordinators were on site at the camp Friday to help residents find temporary housing, because the camp is located on a toxic brownfield.

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Case workers, volunteers work to start clearing tent city

Keim Shirley has been homeless for about three years.

He's bounced around Chattanooga, but he finally found some stability six months ago on a plot of land behind a fenced-in wellness center on East 11th Street, where dozens of other homeless men and women have pitched their own tents in small groups. He shares a tent with his partner, Tracy Carello, and their service dog, Bud.

Over the last week they've been talking with case workers, volunteers and city employees who informed them the land they've been sleeping on is hazardous to human health after being used as a waste dump for decades.

Staff in Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke's office said they learned the site was dangerous after discovering a deed restriction that showed the plot's history. Of particular concern are the remaining contaminants from a gasification plant that polluted the area with coal tar and foundry sand.

An emergency shelter across the street at the Chattanooga Community Kitchen has been reopened for two weeks while workers try to get the homeless placed in permanent housing, but Shirley said he's heard that before and outside assistance always falls short of what is really needed.

"I hate to use the words, 'We'll wait and see,' but we'll wait and see," he said while sitting on a pile of his belongings Friday morning. "We do everything they want us to do every time, but the help always comes to a stopping point."

He said he used to be a business owner, but he hit a rough patch and one venture after another went belly up until nothing was left. Once he lost his primary source of income, it wasn't long before the house went, along with whatever securities he had enjoyed with it.

Eventually Shirley wound up sleeping under a bridge and trekking to the Salvation Army to get back on his feet. He and Carello have been looking for work to get off the street, but it's hard to find employment on top of food and a safe place to lay their heads at night, and he's not looking for a handout.

"We don't want to be on this side of the fence," he said. "When these different groups and people offer to help, I make sure to ask, 'Can you tell me how to get from here to there?' instead of 'Will you get me from here to there?'"

Sam Wolfe, the city's homeless program coordinator, and representatives from a handful of other groups, including the Chattanooga Housing Authority, have been working over the last week to inform the residents of the "tent city" that they will need to move off the land by Monday.

On Friday, they stood at the entrance of the camp to help ease the transition.

"Today we are out here with volunteers, and we're filling out housing applications with people, giving them trash bags for their stuff and telling them the Community Kitchen is open," Wolfe said.

He said displacement too often is a fact of life for homeless people who have to spend an outrageous amount of time finding basic resources. In fact, he said, the lot became a popular spot in the first place partly because of its close proximity to the Community Kitchen and the services provided there.

One of the people assisting Friday morning was Heather Kwon, outreach coordinator for Relevant Hope. She spends most of her time in homeless encampments throughout the city and said she can understand why their residents would have doubts about the help available to them.

"They've been let down and disappointed a lot, and the reality is that not everyone's going to get permanent housing," she said.

Kwon said she's met dozens of people in the tent city and even brought her kids down to meet and talk with some of the residents.

"I really wish people could see tent city the way I do. They feel so isolated from society, and this gives them acceptance. It's a community," she said. "I've seen some people here give away their belongings to people who need it more."

In the final days that the emergency shelter was open during the coldest months of the year, Kwon helped give out most of the tents being used on the site now thanks to a grant that paid for the purchase. She said Friday that she'll be working with other volunteers over the weekend to help people pull up those stakes and move over to the Community Kitchen.

"That's their lifeline. That's where they can get three meals a day. That's where they can get medicine," she said.

Volunteers are needed today to help relocate about 100 people who call the tent city home, according to a news release from Waterhouse Public Relations. Anyone interested in helping can show up at the Community Kitchen at 9 a.m. to take down tents, identify owners, clean up and fill out housing applications.

Shirley and Carello hope they can find something a little more secure than their current situation over the next several weeks, but in the meantime, they have to uproot their lives. Carello said she wishes others could better understand what they've experienced.

"Live like we do for a week. Put away your money and try and find a normal job. Feel what we feel and you might grow a heart," she said.

The couple said they'll take whatever comes, but they've come to rely on each other more than anyone else.

"We do nothing but eat and sleep and try to find jobs because we want to be back where we were before. It's not really the counselors pushing us, it's us pushing each other," Shirley said.

"We'll make it. We will make it, and that's all I can say."

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

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