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Staff photo by Wyatt Massey / Wendy Winters, executive director of the Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition, stands in the hallway outside her office on Dec. 1, 2020.

The Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition received a $2.5 million grant from the state to support people experiencing homelessness in the area through rapid rehousing and other initiatives.

The money is part of the Tennessee Housing Development Agency's Emergency Solutions Grant program created by the federal coronavirus relief package known as the CARES Act. Wendy Winters, executive director of the coalition, said the money will fund programs in Hamilton County and 10 surrounding counties.

"The main focus of this is to get people that do not have housing into housing," Winters said, adding the COVID-19 outbreak is particularly challenging for the homeless population since they do not have a place to quarantine or isolate. "... We believe that housing, in a sense, is health care when it comes to the pandemic."

Area agencies providing direct services to homeless people have until Jan. 15 to apply to receive funds. Programs that help prevent people from becoming homeless are also eligible, Winters said.

Money in the program can be used for landlord incentives, including double deposits, that would allow renters and area programs to secure housing in an otherwise crowded Chattanooga market, Winters said.

"These rapid rehousing dollars are going to open a lot of doors that have been previously shut because the housing market in Chattanooga is so tight," Winters said.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is straining local communities after record-high unemployment and months of inaction from Congress. Food banks nationwide are reporting increased need. Since March, the homeless coalition's helpline has seen a 150% increase in calls compared to previous years. The federal ban on evictions is set to expire on Dec. 31, too, putting millions of Americans at risk for homelessness, advocates have warned.

"We really just don't know yet what the impact, the full impact, of the pandemic is going to be on the homeless population. But we have to anticipate that it's going to go up," Winters said.

Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.

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