Homeless people fill Chattanooga's shelters as frigid weather persists

Homeless people fill Chattanooga's shelters as frigid weather persists

January 18th, 2018 by Rosana Hughes in Local Regional News

In this Jan. 7, 2015, staff file photo, volunteer Anthony Wayne sets up mats as they set up an overnight shelter at the Chattanooga Community Kitchen in Chattanooga, Tenn., in preparation for single-digit temperatures overnight.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

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With freezing temps hitting the Chattanooga area, cold weather shelters have become lifesavers for some of the area's homeless population.

The Salvation Army of Greater Chattanooga's emergency cold weather shelter was at capacity Tuesday night as frigid temperatures rolled into the region, bringing snow and icy conditions with it.

Sixty people found refuge there that night and no additional people knocked on the shelter's door, but Chattanooga Salvation Army spokeswoman Kimberly George said if her organization is no longer able to accommodate people, workers there will coordinate with the Chattanooga Community Kitchen.

"We're in contact with each other all night, and we keep checking in to see what their numbers are and what our numbers are," George said.

At the Community Kitchen, Executive Director Jens Christensen said about 114 people came into the shelter on Tuesday night. Around this time last year, it was averaging around 60 people.

The Community Kitchen's shelter can handle about 120 people comfortably, but it has accepted as many as 196 in the past. At that point, people can only fit if they're sitting in chairs, rather than lying down.

"The big issue is, for people to be able to lay down, the capacity isn't nearly as high as if people are sitting in chairs," Christensen said. "It's unpleasant, no matter how you cut it."

So far, there hasn't been a time in which both shelters have been so full they couldn't take any more people.

"Between the two of us, we never turn anyone away," George said. "It could be that there are no longer beds or sleeping arrangements, but we put chairs, we just get them out of the cold."

Each time it gets cold, outreach workers visit homeless camps around the area to warn about falling temperatures and spread the word about the shelter, Christensen said. There isn't a service to drive around and pick people up, though, so those who want to get out of the cold have to find their own transportation, whether it's via bus or a friend or by some other means.

But not everyone opts to stay inside, Christensen said.

There are between 600 and 700 people facing homelessness in Chattanooga, Christensen previously told the Times Free Press. Of those, some have family or friends they can stay with. Others spend nights in their cars or at a camp.

Some reasons people might elect to stay outside include concerns for privacy or just aversion to large crowds, Christensen said. For those people, Christensen said they provide blankets, hand warmers, firewood for camps, etc.

In February 2015, 64-year-old Douglas King froze to death not far from the Community Kitchen after falling asleep against a trestle next to the railroad tracks in the 600 block of East 11th Street. His body was surrounded by beer bottles.

Christensen said King chose to stay outside that night, although witnesses said at the time that he had been turned away for drinking.

The only case in which a person would be turned away is if they posed a threat to the rest of the people within the shelter, and in that case, the police are called to pick them up, both George and Christensen said.

Contact staff writer Rosana Hughes at rhughes@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327 with tips or story ideas. Follow her on Twitter @HughesRosana.

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