Homeless organizations in Chattanooga are considering teaming up with a Washington-based company to build small, temporary, shed-like shelters for the city's growing homeless population.
A representative with the company Pallet spoke with the Chattanooga Interagency Council on Homelessness during a quarterly board meeting recently to pitch why the company's work could help bolster the availability of housing as the city struggles to get homeless individuals off the streets.
"We have the social mission of not only ending unsheltered homelessness across the United States, but also providing employment opportunities to people with lived experience in homelessness," said Brandon Bills, the company's spokesperson.
Pallet is a social purpose company, meaning it cannot take donations so it must rely on selling its shelters to turn a profit. Roughly 83% of the company's employees have been affected by homelessness, Bills said.
The company touts the ability to assemble a shelter on vacant properties within an hour. They have built shelters throughout the country, including 25 in Nashville.
The shelters resemble renovated sheds or small cabins. The structures come with 64- and 100-square-foot options, which house two and four individuals, respectively.
The company is also able to build on-site services such as community rooms, hand-washing stations and bathrooms, Bills said.
The concept of building the temporary shelters is only in the beginning stages. The next step is to bring the city's homeless population into the conversation, said Wendy Winters, executive director of the Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition.
"We would love to give a voice to those being discussed to assess a possible solution instead of us giving our opinion," Winters said after the board meeting. "You need to consult the people directly."
Theodore Young, a Chattanooga-based social worker, noted that it's going to be crucial to also speak with the public about the importance of housing the city's homeless population due to fears that the structures could reduce property values.
"This was very eye opening, very informative, and also out of the box — something new to address a very crucial and critical situation that's happening throughout our country today," Young said.
The discussion came as Chattanooga's homeless population has increased while encampments are being consolidated during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The city's population of unsheltered people has grown by 80% since 2020, with about 350 people sleeping on Chattanooga's streets each night, said Sam Wolfe, the city's director of homelessness and supportive housing. Meanwhile, all of the city's 469 permanent supportive housing beds are full.
Each year, 80 beds open up. But 300-400 chronically homeless individuals are in need of those beds each year, meaning the city's resources lack the capacity to house them.
"It's a pandemic-related thing, but it's housing, ultimately," Wolfe said. "The pandemic has further exacerbated the economic hardships of people living in poverty. Simultaneously, the cost of housing in Chattanooga has gone up tremendously."
Chattanooga is working to combat the lack of housing while curbing litter and violent crime by opening a supervised homeless encampment on 12th Street near Peeples Street.
Creating more encampments, though, is far from a solution, said Mary Ellen Galloway, director of homeless services for Signal Centers, who has praised Pallet's work.
"They're still sleeping on the street, they still have no housing," Galloway said. "We've done the research. We know what works. We've got to move on. We've got to find something."
While city officials have said housing is the most important issue, it's unclear how they plan to create that housing.
They have said, however, they can use federal funds the city received from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.
In October, the Chattanooga City Council unanimously approved a nearly $3 million purchase of a hotel on Lee Highway with plans to turn it into low-income housing.
The Airport Inn at 7725 Lee Highway, owned by Sunlight Inc., will be bought for an amount not to exceed $2.79 million, according to the resolution. The city will purchase the 74-room hotel with those funds.
Contact Logan Hullinger at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @LoganHullinger.