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Staff File Photo / Officials approach a tent in Lookout Valley while conducting an annual Point In Time count of the city's homeless population in 2019.

A supervised tent city for homeless individuals, with access to bathrooms and other services, sounds humane and compassionate.

Of course, that's what was once said about San Francisco, a formerly beautiful city now called in a recent City Journal magazine article "a hostage to the homeless."

We're not suggesting the recently considered supervised homeless encampment here would turn Chattanooga into California's city by the bay, where "everyone's on drugs ... and stealing," where "assault seems to be normalized," where feces patrols comb the city and where "the city enables the entire homeless lifestyle." But it does sound like it has the potential to become more of a drawing card than a temporary stop en route to a home or a job.

Chattanooga City Council members, who heard a presentation on the subject last week from Sam Wolfe, the city's director of homelessness and supportive housing, had questions about which nonprofit agency would run the site, how much it would cost and where the bathrooms that were said would be available are.

The cost, Wolfe said, could be borne by money the city and county are receiving through the American Rescue Act of 2021, a so-called COVID federal relief bill signed earlier this year (and on which just a tiny percentage was spent on pandemic relief).

Earlier this fall, the Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition also was awarded a federal $2.2 million grant to help youth who were experiencing homelessness with funds for housing and wraparound support services.

But what happens when all the debt-packing federal money runs out?

The site for the homeless camp would be a piece of property at 12th and Peeples streets and is near the Chattanooga Community Kitchen, the Maclellan Shelter for Families and other helper agencies. It would require paving but could completed within weeks, officials said.

If it is approved, it could alleviate the tent city that has existed for months near the railroad crossing on 11th Street, just four blocks from City Hall and a few blocks from the projected homeless encampment. The site next to the railroad tracks, according to a spokesman for the outgoing Berke administration in March, is leased by the city from Norfolk Southern Corp. for $300.

Three years earlier, in 2018, a similar homeless camp quickly grew up yards south of the current camp. But eventually, some 100 campers were forced to vacate the spot because city officials said the site was unsafe because of contaminated soil and could cause long-term health problems.

Smaller homeless camps also exist in and around the adjacent bridges and overpasses in the immediate area and elsewhere in the city.

A published report earlier this year said the city has become a "Ground Zero" for homeless individuals from elsewhere because of the area's compassion.

Homeless individuals do need our compassion, but they more desperately need homes, jobs, help with drug addiction and treatment for mental illnesses.

It's also difficult to tell exactly how big the homeless problem is. Wolfe said almost 400 Hamilton County residents sleep on the streets every night, the Chattanooga Community Kitchen says the number is 600 to 700, and the National Health Care for the Homeless puts the number at 6,000 (which could be a total number for the year).

Yet, whether it was during booming economic years of 2017-2019 or pandemic years of 2020-2021, officials always said the number of homeless went up.

Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly, for instance, said earlier this year: "We know the pandemic has caused a sharp uptick in homelessness across our city."

But if the current figures are correct, numbers over the past decade show the problem has been even worse.

Previous local point-in-time homeless surveys have put the number of homeless at 1,064 in the pre-Great Recession year of 2007, 561 in 2011, 548 in 2012, and 641 adults and 627 children in 2018.

But to get back to the point of a supervised tent city, if we thought there was every chance such an encampment would get people into jobs (which are available everywhere you look), get them into affordable housing (which all agree is limited in the city), and get them the addiction and mental health they need (which seems to be a growing problem), we would be enthusiastically supportive.

However, in spite of the good intentions and compassion of our city's residents and its government, we're unsure if this is a good solution or another in a long line of bandages.

We hope council members will ask more in-depth questions about this proposal before they consider whether to give it their approval.

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