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Staff Photo by Carmen Nesbitt / Homeless residents Tiffany Bennett, left, and Mary Rodriguez, known to her friends as "Auntie Mary," chat on Wednesday, May 25, 2022, outside temporary shelters built for homeless residents. Bennett said Rodriguez is like a mother figure to her and has been since her mother passed away.

The city of Chattanooga is working to remove homeless residents from temporary shelters put up outside a sanctioned homeless encampment in the city's Southside, saying the all-wood structures are a fire hazard.

"The fire marshal has called them unsafe," city spokesperson Ellis Smith said in a phone call. "It's a risk that we're not willing to take for these residents who are trying to move into a safe situation."

The city had posted notices on at least two of the shelters, along Peeples Street, giving residents until 7 a.m. Wednesday to relocate, and several did.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga organizations consider building small shelters for homeless people)

Two of those residents who relocated were Merle Johnson and his girlfriend Crystal Davis, who has cancer. They had been living in their shelter since February and moved to a tent nearby.

"Two or three days ago, they come and put a note on the door. They said we had to vacate in three days. (My wife) has cancer, she's an ill person. I'm an ill person. I have health problems," Johnson said, adding that they are waiting for permanent housing. "We can't get nowhere. It's wrong for what they did to us."

The shelters were built by Joshua Kapellusch, founder of the nonprofit Tiny Homes for the Unhoused People, an organization that works to provide adequate shelter for the homeless, according to the foundation's website. The shelters cost around $50 to construct.

"The idea was to build shelters for people. We built them during the winter," Kapellusch said. "In six-and-a-half hours we got the first one done, and a homeless veteran actually lived in it, and we built a bunch more."

The city's sanctioned encampment, which the tiny homes surround, was opened May 24 by the city of Chattanooga in partnership with the Signal Mountain-based nonprofit Help Right Here. It was an effort to move homeless people living on nearby railroad property to a safer location a few blocks down at 12th and Peeples streets. The fenced-in area has its own security guard.

But Kapellusch said the sanctioned encampment's pavement is too hot in the summer and tents don't provide sufficient protection from the elements.

"They paved this blacktop. When it's 95 degrees out, it's 150 on the blacktop. People are suffering," Kapellusch said.

Inside the shelters is space for a mattress and built-in small shelves. The doors are also equipped with a padlock, which creates a sense of security for homeless people, Kapellusch said.

Smith said the structures, while well-intentioned, weren't approved by the city or fire marshal and are dangerous to homeless people living nearby.

The homes are equipped with a fire extinguisher and a smoke alarm, Kapellusch said. However, one burned down recently.

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City evicts homeless from temporary shelters deemed unsafe by fire marshal

"These are constructed by well-meaning residents, but they pose a danger to the very people they're trying to help," Smith said. "There are many ways to help out that are additive to the process. Whether that's donating your time, donating your resources to the Community Kitchen, to Homeless Health Care, the Furniture Bank."

There are 13 residents living within the sanctioned encampment, and the city hopes to have 30 by the end of June and 60 by August. Smith said it serves as a temporary solution for homeless people while they await permanent housing.

"This is not a place where anyone's going to retire," Smith said. "This is a place where they can better access services, what they need to get into is a permanent home."

But getting approved for housing can be a lengthy process, depending on an individual's situation and whether they have sufficient documentation.

Mary Rodriguez said she's been waiting for months. Her boyfriend, whom she calls her husband due to their 12-year relationship, is a registered sex offender, and finding housing where they can live together is nearly impossible, she said.

"We're ride or die," Rodriguez said. "Where I go, he goes. Where he goes, I go. It don't matter what: We're here together."

Smith said the city makes every effort to notify residents in advance and has even offered temporary stays in hotels while they wait for permanent housing. Sometimes the offer is turned down, he said.

For 19-year-old Tiffany Bennett, who has been homeless for more than a year, her fellow homeless residents are family, and she wants to stay nearby.

"And it's hard for me being on the streets not having my family around or nothing," she said. "(This is) the only family I got right now."

It is unclear if the city plans to post additional eviction notices, but residents have until May 31 to relocate off the rail line, Smith said, adding the city is exploring other housing options for the homeless, including less flammable shelters.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga audit office clears Mayor Kelly of any conflict in homeless displacement and land sale)

Contact Carmen Nesbitt at cnesbitt@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @carmen_nesbitt.

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Staff Photo by Carmen Nesbitt / Merle Johnson and his girlfriend Crystal Davis moved from their temporary shelter Wednesday, May 25, 2022, to a red tent across the street after the city of Chattanooga posted an eviction on their door giving them until Wednesday to relocate.
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