This story was updated Thursday, June 2, 2022, at 7:45 p.m. with more information.
Sheltered from the noon sun under a canopy of trees, Johnathan Wilbur sat across the street from the homeless camp where he lived for two months, watching as heavy equipment shuttled giant piles of refuse off the property.
Although he's been approved for an apartment, Wilbur said, he won't be able to move in until late next week. He's waiting to receive copies of his Social Security card and birth certificate.
"It was all right," Wilbur said about the camp off Chattanooga's East 11th Street. "Everybody was there for each other. It was an all-right place."
Crews cleared the homeless camp of its remaining residents Wednesday. Thursday, the city of Chattanooga started the process of demolishing and cleaning up leftover debris at the property, which is owned by Norfolk Southern.
After inspecting the camp to ensure it was empty, which included the retrieval of a kitten left there, workers used bulldozers and boom cranes to clear the land. A portion of East 11th Street was blocked off Thursday morning as crews completed the demolition.
In March, the city announced plans to displace residents from the encampment, setting a deadline of May 31. Officials have cited numerous safety issues at the camp, including its proximity to the railroad, fires and multiple murder attempts.
The camp once housed 140 residents, and Chattanooga officials said they have placed 35 people in permanent homes over the past two months.
According to a news release from the city, all residents were offered a referral to a new temporary sanctioned encampment on 12th Street or toward permanent housing through the Chattanooga Housing Authority. The city said residents who declined housing were offered a new tent and relocation assistance.
Fifteen people are living in the new supervised camp, but that number may increase to 60 by the end of the summer.
A new state law that goes into effect July 1 makes it a felony to camp on local public property, but Chattanooga's director of homelessness and supportive housing, Sam Wolfe, said city leaders don't anticipate changes in how the city enforces its rules. Chattanooga Police Chief Celeste Murphy, he said, has been adamant that she doesn't want to criminalize poverty.
"Folks existing in a space is not a crime," he said in an interview with the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
According to The Associated Press, the state enhanced penalties for camping on state property from a misdemeanor to a felony in 2020 in response to overnight protests on Capitol grounds, which were part of national protests that erupted following the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of police. The new law that goes into effect this summer makes camping on local public property, such as in parks, a felony punishable by up to six years in prison.
Wolfe is unaware of any homeless people staying on public property because the city already has ordinances in place that prohibit sleeping in parks.
He added that the city does not displace homeless people without cause. The decision to clear the homeless camp on East 11th Street came at the request of Norfolk Southern, a right that extends to any property owner, and in 99% of the calls received by law enforcement, Wolfe said, property owners choose to loop in homeless service organizations.
Although the East 11th Street property is now empty, Wolfe said his office is continuing to engage with former residents of the encampment. Chattanooga's office of homelessness and supportive housing, Wolfe said, has so far housed more than 250 people in 2022.
"The site may be clear of people staying there," Wolfe said. "That doesn't mean that we have stopped working with these people. It doesn't mean that the people from that location are not going to be moved into housing as we move forward."
Although service organizations are able to successfully house people, Wolfe said, there's a constant influx of new people becoming homeless.
"It seems like what the public perceives as a static number is really this variance of people moving through this system," Wolfe said. "The number is that outflow problem versus the inflow problem."
Wendy Winters, the executive director of the Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition, said in a phone interview the number of homeless people in Chattanooga and the surrounding region has skyrocketed over the past two years.
In Southeast Tennessee, defined as an 11-county region including Hamilton County, advocates tallied 3,084 homeless people during the annual point-in-time count this year, an increase of 153% compared to 2021.
"There are a number of factors at play," she said about those figures. "But the No. 1 factor is a lack of affordable housing."
Although she's encouraged by recent actions taken by Chattanooga city government to ease development of affordable housing, Winters said, the city does not have a low-barrier emergency shelter.
"It's really weird that this law was passed, and we don't have places for people to go," she said. "In other states, they're not allowed to enforce removing someone in a situation like this if there's not shelter beds that are available."
The city doesn't plan changes to how it enforces rules about camping, but Winters said it's unclear what enforcement will look like outside Chattanooga.
The Community Kitchen, an organization that provides food and other services to homeless people in Chattanooga, is just down the road from the now-empty encampment on East 11th Street. CEO Baron King said in a phone interview most of the people who lived there came to the organization for daily meals and showers.
King said the Community Kitchen has a full pipeline of people who have applied for space in Section 8 housing or are seeking shelter in one of the organization's units.
"It's possible that some of the people that were in that encampment have been part of that pipeline for housing," King said, but he didn't know for sure.
The Community Kitchen operates long-term housing sites in the area and also partners with a few overnight shelters at local churches. Given the size of the homeless population, King said, Chattanooga needs a large emergency shelter, which would get people off the street and help reduce drug use and violent crime.
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