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This story was updated on Tuesday, March 23, 2021, at 6:37 p.m. with additional information.

The city of Chattanooga will rent up to 100 hotel rooms in East Ridge, Tennessee, to help the growing local homeless population find shelter and avoid COVID-19.

With the federal government now offering a complete reimbursement for such programs, the city is looking to spend up to $400,000 on as many as 100 hotel rooms to shelter people experiencing homelessness with enough separation to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Through an agreement with the Budgetel Inn & Suites on North Mack Smith Road, the city's Homeless Services Division is seeking to extend and expand its non-group shelter program for people experiencing homelessness by offering the additional rooms for up to 90 days.

In a presentation to the city council on Tuesday, Director of Special Projects Tyler Yount said the project would be an expansion of the city's efforts to shelter those in need without spreading the virus.

"Since the winter months, our homelessness division has been providing what, in the COVID world, we call non-congregate shelter, which is shelter for homeless individuals where people have separate bedrooms and bathrooms to minimize the spread of COVID-19," Yount said. "This has been the best practice that CDC [U.S. Centers for Disease Control] and FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] have recommended communities do. So cities around the country have been moving to this model for people who experience homelessness during the COVID outbreak.

"Of course if we need to, we can extend this. But we want to be very nimble so that we can change as the pandemic changes and people get vaccinated, etc.," Yount added.

Throughout the winter, individuals have stayed in a modified version of a congregate cold weather shelter at the Community Kitchen and the city has used 25 individual rooms at the same East Ridge hotel to house those who are medically vulnerable to COVID-19.

Now, the federal government has made it easier for the city to pay for additional non-congregate rooms, by making the cost of the rooms 100% reimbursable through FEMA.

Similarly, FEMA has reimbursed the city for an isolation shelter set up at the Salvation Army throughout the pandemic.

"So we feel confident that we know how to do it and that FEMA is going to reimburse us and all that stuff," Yount said.

With a recent 81% spike in homelessness locally, he said, the change will mitigate health and safety risks for those without shelter.

"We're seeing a giant jump in unsheltered homelessness," Yount told the council. "Many of you routinely talk to us about encampment issues in your districts, and as those are abated and moved around, we've been seeing a grouping of larger encampments which is putting those folks at risk."

(READ MORE: Homeless Chattanoogans removed from decades-old encampment, as some say they got no notice)

According to Yount, the program will not only provide safer accommodations for individuals awaiting housing but would expedite the process of getting them housed by making them more accessible to city workers. In addition to rooms and security, the hotel will provide a shuttle from the rooms to 11th Street so that people could have access to homeless services provided downtown.

During the presentation at an afternoon strategic planning meeting, council members supported the plan enough to move it onto the business agenda for the same day.

Councilman Darrin Ledford praised the idea and advocated for the council to take a vote Tuesday to help the program begin sooner.

"I think it's smart, I think it's strategic, I think it's compassionate," he said. "I think it's an impactful action that a lot of folks have been wanting to see, so I applaud your effort."

"If there's a way we can make a positive impact today, I would be in full support," he added.

The council voted unanimously to approve the plan later on Tuesday. According to Yount, the city could begin sheltering individuals as early as Wednesday.

This project is separate from the city's ongoing efforts to put $1 million in COVID funding toward purchasing a hotel to create a low-barrier shelter, which would provide emergency temporary housing that limits the conditions imposed for people to get shelter.

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

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