Last week, we counted homeless people again in Chattanooga. We do this every year, as part of a federally mandated census of people living wherever they can spread a blanket.
It's called the annual Point-in-Time Count, and it's required in every community receiving federal funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The count — along with other data collected about our local homeless population — will be submitted to the government in March.
Judging from what we see daily throughout the Chattanooga area, the 2019 count will go up, just as it did in 2018 and 2017.
The total homeless population after last year's count was 623, up from 576 the previous year. Even more concerning was last year's increase in the chronically homeless population — those who have been homeless for more than a year. That number jumped to 322 in 2018 from 192 in 2017 — 68 percent.
The good news is that Chattanooga has a plan, a real plan, to shrink those numbers and help people get off the streets and back into a normal life with a roof over their heads.
Helping the homeless has been an important part of Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke's agenda since he took office in 2013. He had initiated an effort to end veterans homelessness locally, and it didn't take long for him to come to understand that the problem was harder to fix that one might think. Someone needed to be in charge of creating coordination among social agencies and networks, but no one was.
Last March, Berke signed an executive order forming a new interagency council to work together against homelessness. The new group has some familiar faces: the Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition, the Chattanooga Housing Authority, several foundations that support homeless programs, and the area's medical and mental health community. But it also now has city skin in the game, in the form of $1 million a year for four years to hire and pay 25 outreach workers called "navigators." Those navigators will connect the dots in a system that previously had more barriers than gateways.
The focus will be on guiding the homeless to housing and helping them stay there, not just counting them, not just feeding them, not just giving them a bed for the night — not even just giving them the key to an apartment for which they have no chair or cereal bowl.
This just might work.