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Keim Shirley, left, puts his arm around Tracy Corello in a homeless encampment behind the city's wellness center on East 11th Street on Friday, April 6, 2018, in Chattanooga, Tenn. City service coordinators were on site at the camp Friday to help residents find temporary housing, because the camp is located on a toxic brownfield.

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Seven questions for the Homelessness Council

Tuesday afternoon, the city's newly formed Interagency Council on Homelessness meets for the first time.

Two dozen agencies are invited.

But not the public or press.

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Original blueprint to end homelessness

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"This first Interagency Council on Homelessness meeting will be closed," said City Hall spokeswoman Richel Albright.

When asked how a policy- making body like this council can shut its doors to the public or press, Albright had no answer.

That's not the only pressing question that needs to be addressed Tuesday.

On Valentine's Day, dozens of Chattanoogans were kicked out of the Economy Inn by local police who rushed in, one eyewitness said, like they were raiding the place.

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Blueprint

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These were folks who'd paid rent. With kids in school. Jobs to work. Some were disabled. Many, elderly. Many, if not all, poor or working class.

And all suddenly, instantly, homeless.

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2007 review of blueprint

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"The vast majority of the displaced persons were elderly. Most were on disability. The younger, healthier residents had already gone to work," said Pete Cooper.

Cooper, the former head of Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga, was there as a volunteer, helping drive folks to motels that may or may not have had vacancies.

"For those folks I transported, most of their worldly belongings fit in the trunk of my relatively small car," Cooper said. "While the school system had been informed two days earlier, most social service providers were either informed a day early or not at all. The plan totally lacked compassion for the elderly and disabled. While the city did provide some financial resources for rent, that was being negotiated as the tenants were being evicted with 30 minutes to an hour notice."

-First question: how can we trust the city's leadership on homelessness when a situation like the Economy Inn closure was handled in such a way?

Two months later, the city bulldozed a homeless community known as Tent City.

Roughly 130 people were living there.

This time, City Hall alerted residents and social service providers days before the dozing, claiming the land — a field near East 11th Street — was toxic.

-Second question: what are the exact boundaries and square footage of the toxicity?

-Third question: how can other nearby development — a police precinct, a wellness center, a health clinic, a former produce stand — exist there and not a Tent City?

Around the same time, the City Council approved a new ordinance that restricted panhandling even further within city limits.

-Fourth question: who had the original idea to create such an ordinance?

-Fifth question: how much does this have to do with shoo-ing and barring homeless folks from the soon-to-reopen Miller Park?

Faced with enormous sewer bill debt, the city continues to respond in draconian ways by shutting off people's water when they can't pay.

And when people — mostly poor, working class, renting from landlords who are often absent and neglectful — don't have working utilities, they are often evicted as a result.

Which causes more homelessness.

Which suggests the city cares more about sewer debt than homelessness.

In the winter of 2017, the city got tough on its approximately $4 million sewer debt: robo-calls and letters that threatened shut-off.

Since then, hundreds and hundreds of Chattanoogans have had their water disconnected because they can't pay a sewer bill.

The city was offering a pay-back period, spread out over nine months.

But how do you pay off $2,000 in sewer debt in nine months when you only earn $750 a month?

-Sixth question: why won't the city extend the pay-back period to 36 months?

This new interagency council is certainly not the first.

In 2003, then-mayor Bob Corker created a committee that would soon build the most comprehensive plan for solving local homelessness: "The Blueprint to End Chronic Homelessness."

The Blueprint was created by federal and local experts, drawing on best practices, homeless testimony, long-term planning and moral guidance and illustrated practical and viable steps on solving chronic homelessness — from affordable housing to transitional shelters to boosting case management to job creation — everything under the sun needed to address local, chronic homelessness.

(The original Blueprint and a 2007 review are found with the online version of this column.)

-Seventh question: how much attention is City Hall giving to the Blueprint?

-All of this leads to the last question:

Is the city causing more homelessness than it solves?

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.

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