Sohn: City steps up to end homelessness in Chattanooga

Sohn: City steps up to end homelessness in Chattanooga

December 9th, 2018 by Pam Sohn in Opinion Times

File photo by Doug Strickland / A homeless encampment off of East 11th Street last March was found to be on a toxic waste site and had to be removed. The city is now taking the lead to help rethink how we help the homeless.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

In April, we mused here about how we keep not fixing homelessness.

How many tent cities, we asked, would have to be demolished or forced to be relocated in Chattanooga before we as a community would finally grasp that we are simply choosing not to see the steadily increasing problem of homelessness around us. (Answer: at least one a year over the past decade or so)

Our question was prompted by the discovery that what was then was a fairly new homeless encampment behind the city's wellness center and 11th Street police precinct across from the Community Kitchen (actually a pretty good location where those down on their luck could be watched over) was unfortunately on a toxic waste site.

With that revelation, city officials made an emergency allocation of up to $15,000 to the Community Kitchen to reopen its cold-weather shelter for two weeks to help transition the 110 or so campers either to new campsites or (for about 75) to apartments.

Those campers weren't in homeless shelters because Chattanooga doesn't have anywhere near the number of shelter beds needed for a city our size.

But then shelters aren't the answer anyway. Housing is the answer for the more than 640 adults and 627 children who are homeless in our city on any given day.

We're happy to say that city officials — primarily Mayor Andy Berke — took that question to heart.

It was actually a question that had been nagging him for several years after he enrolled the city in an effort to end veteran homelessness and realized how hard it was.

There were so many "barriers" — his word — to helping people, he found.

"Barriers" was a tactful way of saying that the feel-good safety network systems of dozens of loosely coordinated local organizations over the years have more often tripped over each other and gotten in the way of providing real help.

For instance?

» Temporary shelters that require Bible study for a cot and a blanket might work for some, but certainly not all. And not long-term.

» A goal to provide warm meals makes homeless people more comfortable, but it's not enough to fix their lives.

» The agency in charge of advocating for the homeless in an 11-county region of Chattanooga helped obtain housing for fewer than 20 people last year, and a dozen of them were helped through the city's veterans push. Its function is more grant-writing than hands-on help.

» A housing authority that has 575 subsidized apartments has no way to find homeless people — a population that in almost all certainty can qualify for some form of help that makes them eligible for those apartments.

The intent has been here. It's always been here. The results have not.

Why? Because there has been no coordination. No streamlining. No real effort to identify and cut through the barriers — the red tape of this organization, the dogma of that one, the habit of another, the missing pieces of human interaction at a dozen more.

So in March, Berke signed an executive order forming a new interagency council to work together against homelessness.

The new Chattanooga Interagency Council on Homelessness included many of the existing help organizations like the Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition, the Chattanooga Housing Authority, several foundations that support homeless programs, and the area's medical and mental health community. The new group's city-led focus will be on guiding the homeless to housing, not just counting them, not just feeding them, not just giving them a bed for the night or the week and not just giving them the key to an apartment for which they have no chair or cereal bowl.

Berke said that in working through the veterans homelessness push, he came to understand that the city had to take the lead, draw up a new blueprint, and above all else hire adequate support people — whom he calls navigators — and create a system and set of supports that will work from the outset.

Along the way, he hopes to gain buy-in for changing some existing barriers — read here: reshape some of the systems of help that are now operating the way they always have, whether they help or not.

The draft plan covers four years and has four main steps: Identify people who are homeless, create standard assessments and referrals, maintain solid databases of available housing units and resources, and most importantly, add 25 outreach workers, housing navigators and service coordinators.

This will cost about $1 million a year. Already some council members are on board — Vice Chairman Erskine Oglesby Jr. and Darrin Ledford. Eventually, city officials envision the Chattanooga Interagency Council on Homelessness to become its own entity, much as Chattanooga 2.0 spun off of a Chamber of Commerce initiative.

About 80 percent of homelessness is considered "episodic" — in other words those folks will be homeless only for a short time after a job loss, an illness, an eviction or some other sudden crisis pushed them over the financial edge. With a small amount of help, they are likely to soon be housed again.

The other 20 percent will have more and longer episodes of homelessness until they become "chronically" homeless and need considerably more help to find a home and stay in it.

We can do this. And we're proud that our city has stepped up to lead the way.

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