Fire won't gut plans for Chattanooga homeless health center

Fire won't gut plans for Chattanooga homeless health center

September 24th, 2011 by Cliff Hightower and Andrew Pantazi in News

On Friday, Chattanooga fire investigator Anthony Moore uses a accelerant detector inside the vacant, city-owned Old Farmers Market building that burned Thursday night on East 11th Street.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

A homeless man crawled inside the abandoned building across the street from the Community Kitchen on Friday, waded through the ash and charred remains of the fire the night before.

His clothes, his backpack, his two suitcases, all that 57-year-old Rick Spencer owned, had become nothing more than chaff.

"Everything I own is gone," he said.

In a soaked trash bag outside the East 11th Street building, a striped blue-and-white shirt and brown dress pants were only half burnt, but they didn't belong to Spencer.

For the past few weeks, he and a half dozen other homeless men and women had been living in the abandoned building - slated by Mayor Ron Littlefield as a possible homeless health care center. But Thursday night, Spencer said he saw one of the air mattresses in the building set on fire and watched as the flames spread to a nearby chair, then a wall, and soon the roof.

Scores of firefighters, paramedics and cops manned East 11th Street to put the fire out and keep people back. By 11:30 p.m., the last of the fire was put out.

Five years ago, Littlefield bought the building as part of a 9.5-acre plot for $775,000 with plans on turning the lot into a new location for the Hamilton County Homeless Health Care Center.

Richard Beeland, spokesman for Littlefield, said Friday the fire would not in any way affect plans for the proposed health care center. The city owns the property but plans on donating it to the county, which received a $2.7 million grant to build the facility.

Anthony Moore, fire investigator for the Chattanooga Fire Department, completes his morning inspection of Thursday's fire at 712 E. 11th Street. The building was scheduled for demolition recently.

Anthony Moore, fire investigator for the Chattanooga Fire...

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

First though, Beeland said, there were plans to demolish the building though there was no timetable for the demolition.

"It shouldn't have an effect whatsoever," Beeland said. "They were waiting to demolish the building, so it should have zero effect."

As a result of the building being abandoned and the plans to demolish it, Chattanooga Fire Department investigator Capt. Anthony Moore said the fire caused a zero-dollar loss.

County Mayor Jim Coppinger said Friday the homeless health clinic will move forward.

"The fire doesn't affect that," he said. "This doesn't have any bearing."

He said most of the concerns from the County Commission are more toward soil concerns and whether environmental remediation may be needed. He said the county is waiting for soil tests at this time to see if there are any problems.

Still located on the property are the furniture bank operated by the United Way and Salvation Army, the Interfaith Homeless Network and the Southeast Tennessee Human Resources Agency.

And a burned, abandoned building.

Spencer, along with five other homeless people, sat on the corner of Baldwin and East 11th streets and commiserated Thursday night.

"It's no fault of my own that this stuff keeps happening," said Spencer, who told the group that he'd been robbed three times in the past week

Firemen work to put out a fire at 721 E. 11th St. in downtown Chattanooga on Thursday. Policemen at the scene speculated that it may have been started by homeless people.

Firemen work to put out a fire at...

Photo by Alex Washburn /Times Free Press.

Denise Howard still had her shopping cart full of vines, art supplies, trinkets and her tennis shoes, but her clothes, her knitted blankets, her pillows were all gone in the fire.

Whoever started the fire was a cruel person, she said.

"This is what you call hate," she said.

Fire investigator Moore showed up as the fire was dying out Thursday night and interviewed the whole group.

Spencer, who was the first to spot the fire, told Moore that the last person anyone had seen inside the house was a man called "Nashville." No one knew his real name, but Spencer said that he was drunk off Olde English beer.

Moore said several people had been interviewed about the fire, but there are no suspects.

After Moore left the homeless group Thursday night, they started talking about where they would stay. None of them could come up with a replacement spot.

Eventually, Spencer left to pick up cigarettes and a beer from his friends who stay at the railroad track, but he never found them. When he got back, no one was left on the corner, so he walked to Miller Plaza.

There, he tried sleeping on the bench. Too uncomfortable.

He tried sleeping on the plaza's concrete slab. Too cold, too hard.

He tried sleeping in a chair. Again, too uncomfortable.

Then another homeless man offered Spencer his blanket. Spencer took it and finally slept on the concrete slab.

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