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Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / Phil Oppedisano, a property manager and president of CEO Enterprises Inc., shows Johnetta Langston, a homeless program specialist and housing navigator for the city of Chattanooga, a house on Sewanee Drive in East Ridge on Monday, Sept. 30, 2019. The house is one of many that Oppedisano manages. Sam Wolfe, the city's homelessness program director, says more landlords like Oppediano are needed to help house Chattanooga homeless population.
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Helping the homeless

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With 12 new positions staffed and ready to go, Chattanooga's homeless program is seeking to provide a more complete service to those in need of housing.

When the city's fiscal year 2020 budget came out this summer, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke made strengthening the city's homelessness initiative a top priority, providing more than $1.3 million in funding, up 87% from $731,644 in 2019, and 196% from $462,000 FY18.

The funds included more than $750,000 earmarked for personnel and more than $600,000 distributed among Family Promise, Room at the Inn, Goodwill Furniture Bank and the Homelessness Coalition, which aid the homelessness population through financial and material donations as well as temporary shelter.

"We're really proud of the homelessness piece, and it's going to make a huge difference in the lives of people in our city," Berke said in May. "Not just for those individuals that are homeless but also for neighborhoods and downtown."

Berke has long prioritized homelessness in his tenure as mayor, first working toward ending veteran homelessness and later claiming success in 2017. Now, the mayor is expanding his directive to better address the broader scope of homelessness, including a shift toward chronic homelessness, or homelessness which is recurring or not the result of a one-time factor.

With the new funding and continued drive to holistically address homelessness, the city has housed around 60 people since the start of the year, according to Sam Wolfe, the city's homelessness program director, but now it plans to expand on the number and, moreover, the quality of services available for those in need.

"While we're looking to address homelessness in all the forms it takes, we're definitely focused on addressing chronic homelessness and the factors that cause someone to struggle with housing in a more long-term way," Wolfe said. "Looking at chronic homelessness is fairly intensive and we're really continuing to find new factors that contribute to these people's situations, and the new staff is going to help us figure out how to come at it from all angles."

In recent weeks, the program has been able to fill and is training for 12 new housing navigator, service coordinator and outreach positions, designed to expedite and improve the process of housing those in need and keeping them off the streets.

Many of the positions are outreach oriented, demonstrating Wolfe and the city's priority of providing a more well-rounded approach to helping people struggling with homelessness.

"One of the biggest things we are able to do through our outreach programs is to help identify what other needs can be met through our other programs," Wolfe said of his office's partnerships with other city services, which provide help with things ranging from utility bill assistance to financial counseling. "We're here because the entire homelessness council wants to address the problem as completely as possible, so while there's new stuff we're doing, it's not really reinventing the wheel, it's more figuring out how each office can support as many people as possible."

According to Wolfe, the additional staff also will help establish and maintain partnerships with community groups who provide more services.

"There is a lot more to combating homelessness than just finding someone housing," Wolfe said, referencing city programs that provide funding for startup costs of a new house, financial counseling and other services designed to provide a more stable fresh start. "We've established these different programs and offerings in each of these offices, but now the idea is to create a system in which those in need can easily access all of what the city and community have to offer to get them, and keep them, on their feet."

The new hires are undergoing training and will be ready to go in "the coming weeks," according to Wolfe.

"The timing is advantageous, of course, because winter and summer are the most extreme and dangerous weather for these people to have to be outside," Wolfe said. "But the truth is, we began working as soon as [the budget] passed so we could find the right people and fill these positions — it just took us about this long to get there and now we're excited to get underway."

Wolfe said it's too early to predict what the office may need in the upcoming budget, which is in the infancy of its planning stage, but says there are some needs that the community can help the office address to better serve the city's homeless population.

"The biggest thing that we need is definitely landlords who are willing to work with us to get these people housed, but there are other ways people can help," Wolfe said, noting the need for landlords willing to work with different people's backgrounds. "If people want to donate to our community partners like the Community Kitchen or the Furniture Bank, or make monetary donations to the Flexible Housing Fund, that helps us have the resources to do our work and is a great way to help those that we serve."

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at staylor@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.

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