Shelter is far and away the biggest need addressed by the one-time gifts from the Chattanooga Times Free Press Neediest Cases Fund. A family searches for the final $200 for the first and last month's rent on secure housing. A struggling young family needs $300 after rent money was used to pay for unexpected medical bills. A single mom with three children needs several hundred dollars to make a rent payment and avoid eviction.
Case managers across the spectrum of social services in Hamilton County agree that, no matter the underlining issue, housing is priority one.
"Everything changes when you help someone secure shelter," said Ruth Votava of Family Promise of Greater Chattanooga. "The stress of not having a place to stay is just too much."
The Chattanooga Interagency Council on Homelessness is preparing to implement a new homeless initiative proposed in early December by Mayor Andy Berke. The council includes 24 nonprofit and government entities including the Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition, the Chattanooga Housing Authority, several foundations that support homeless programs, and the area's medical and mental health community.
The annual January point-in-time count of the city's homeless by the coalition found 641 adults and 627 children. Of 2,024 people who received services from city homeless programs this year, nearly half had children and 26 were children, unaccompanied by a parent or guardian.
According to data compiled by the Chattanooga Community Kitchen from social service providers, more than 4,000 people here experience homelessness each year, with more than 1,000 homeless children in public schools. The data estimates that 600-700 people sleep outside or in shelters each year, nearly 200 of them in families.
The latest city effort to combat homeless has a focus on temporary shelter, advocating for using hotel vouchers in the short term while seeking the long-term solution of a 250-bed emergency shelter. In announcing the program, Berke said 85 percent of homeless people who get into housing will stay there when focused services are available.
Case managers understand the different levels of homelessness. Alecia Robinson is a Chattanooga resident who worked through her local church to received $750 from the Neediest Cases Fund for a deposit on an apartment for her and six children. At the other end of the spectrum is Jeff Perry, a 52-year-old native of Indiana who has willfully chosen to live on Chattanooga's streets for the past two and a half years.
It was 32 degrees on Christmas morning as Perry stood above where the line forms for breakfast at the Community Kitchen on East 11th Street. The line started taking shape 30 minutes before the doors were scheduled to open at 8 a.m. Inside, Community Kitchen director of operations Marcia Hayes and her team of volunteers were preparing to serve breakfast to more than 200, while already working on the holiday lunch set to begin at 10:30 a.m.
Perry, 53, carries a backpack and a duffle bag. He slept overnight at the shelter, but his preference are nights when the temperature allows him to stay in a spot nearly Interstate 24 and Broad Street. He says he has chosen to be homeless since 2005 and has spent time in Indianapolis, New York, Atlanta and now Chattanooga.
"I would find a job, get a place and then mess it up," Perry said. "I would do it again and again and eventually you have had so many jobs that you can't get another one. I had a smart mouth that got me into trouble, and there were drugs and alcohol. But I quit drugs and alcohol in 2004 before I just left [home]. I didn't want to be more trouble for my parents. I am just an explorer, so I set out. I still talk to my parents at least once a month."
Perry claims to have no health issues and says he has used the support services offered through the Community Kitchen only to obtain an ID and birth certificate. While most diners at the Community Kitchen on this day mingle, talk in groups and share a laugh, Perry rarely engages in conversation while waiting in line and opts to eat alone.
"I like to go to the library and read books," said the well-spoken Perry, although he couldn't recall what the last book he read was that wasn't the Bible in his backpack. "I am going to head west in a couple of months because I just want to go out there and explore. I may then go back home to Indiana."
Hayes, who said Perry "has been here a bit," said there are "some who don't want or can't handle the responsibility of getting shelter. There are plenty of services in Chattanooga for people who are homeless, but it all starts with someone wanting to get shelter, wanting to get help."
Perry finished breakfast and said he was looking forward to Santa's arrival in a couple of hours. Then there would be a special Christmas lunch.
He said he has worked several part-time jobs here, but he didn't stick with one. He says he doesn't panhandle and hasn't had any issues with law enforcement or other homeless people.
"People seem to always find me and offer me a little money when I need it," Perry said. "It doesn't make sense to most people, but I am content where I am, for now."
Tyler Yount worked on the Berke homeless plan in his role as director of special projects. He says 80 percent of homelessness is "episodic," meaning job loss, illness or other circumstances force people into it.
"They got behind on their rent, got evicted and became homeless," Yount said to the Times Free Press on Dec. 3.
The circumstances he describes are one of the main benefits of the Neediest Cases Fund, said Lesley Scearce, chief executive officer of the United Way of Greater Chattanooga. The United Way administers the Neediest Cases Fund for the Times Free Press.
"One unplanned expense, one crisis can bring instability to families, and the Neediest Cases Fund plugs that gap for many people," Scearce said.
Some of the shelter-related problems for which people received help from the Neediest Cases Fund include:
Tunisa Naranjo moved to Chattanooga from Michigan with her four children in order to live short-term with her mother. Divorced, without child support and needing permanent housing, Naranjo secured a third-shift job and her mother kept the children. Working through Olivet Baptist Church, Naranjo received a one-time gift of $300 used as part of a down payment on an apartment near where she worked.
Elizabeth Williams is a senior citizen with asthma who was asked to vacate her government housing because of the condition of the apartment. Looking to find a healthier environment, Williams needed to satisfy past-due rent with the Chattanooga Housing Authority as part of moving to new housing. She worked with Family Promise of Chattanooga and secured the $390.84 she needed from the Neediest Cases Fund.
Alice Lee of Cleveland, Tennessee, lost her driver's license due to a traffic accident. Dependent on driving her car to her part-time job, Lee scraped together the money to pay the fines necessary to reinstate her license. An unexpectedly high electric bill compounded her financial issues, and there was not $500 for the rent. Working with the AIM Center in Chattanooga, Lee secured the $500 from the Neediest Cases Fund.
The Neediest Cases Fund was started by Chattanooga Times Publisher Adolph Ochs in 1914. Contributions to it will continue through December, and you can donate using the coupon accompanying this story or online at timesfreepress.com/neediestcases.
Contact Davis Lundy at email@example.com.