Opinion: If most homeless are ‘local,’ try working on prevention

Staff Photo by Dave Flessner / The city of Chattanooga has delayed its initial rezoning request to use a former Southeast Tennessee Human Resources Agency bus property on 12th Street for a homeless shelter, as shown on this sign on the property last week.
Staff Photo by Dave Flessner / The city of Chattanooga has delayed its initial rezoning request to use a former Southeast Tennessee Human Resources Agency bus property on 12th Street for a homeless shelter, as shown on this sign on the property last week.

It was a rumor that many Chattanoogans had heard — that the city offered such accommodating services that homeless people purposely came to the city.

The Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition evidently wanted to squelch that rumor or prove it wasn't true, so the agency and its partners took an informal survey of clients over the last three months to see if they had lived in the greater Chattanooga area for one year or more.

More than 87% of 1,226 who were asked said they had.

While that may have satisfied the agencies that a large influx of homeless people weren't coming here for what they thought the city could offer, it also may have unintentionally said that not enough effort is being put into helping local people on the verge of homelessness, local people who already have connections here, local people who likely have had previous jobs here or local people who in the past have had homes here.

That's not necessarily the job of the homeless coalition, but it may be saying something to the city and its partners about prevention.

We're not naive enough to think that the city or any partner can stop every person from becoming homeless. After all, that is the preferred step for some people, with or without mental health issues. But if the majority of local homeless have Chattanooga area connections, just as with preventive medicine, it would be preferable to figure out a way to prevent homelessness on the front end rather than have to treat the issue once it happens.

At the fore is the city's proposal to turn a 12th Street building into a low-barrier shelter, meaning a temporary facility that may have less strict standards than other shelters. The city was moving toward a rezoning request on the project but put a pause on it recently after neighbors complained it would only attract more homeless individuals to the area.

Last week, in a news report announcing that the local Greyhound bus hub that had been in the aforementioned 12th Street building was relocated to Billy's Truck Stop in Wildwood, Georgia, Kevin Roig, a spokesman for Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly, seemed to indicate the bus stop's location and its proximity to homeless services were connected.

"That location's proximity to existing homeless service providers is not conducive to the community's or the city's desire to maintain a vigilant posture against the trafficking of unsheltered people being sent here from other places showing up on Chattanooga's doorstep," he said.

However, both the mayor and his spokesman said in a separate news article several days later that people weren't intentionally being bused here.

"The myth has become that folks are just coming in on buses," said Kelly, "and we're just not seeing that."

"That is not something that is actively happening," Roig said, "nor are we claiming that that is a thing that is actively happening."

Homeless coalition numbers indicated of the more than 12% of people who have come here from elsewhere over the past three months, 33 have come from Georgia (and mostly from Atlanta), 16 from Florida and 71 from a variety of other states (with no other state having more than eight).

Officials who deal with homeless people also differentiated between the homeless and transients, who may not be homeless but come to homeless services centers for food or health care.

The Hamilton County Health Department, for instance, only asks patients where they stayed the night before treatment and their mailing address, according to Karen Guinn, director of homeless services for the department.

The 12th Street building was built by the Southeast Tennessee Human Resources Agency in 2010, was later acquired by CARTA and has been largely unused for the past two years, except as a bus stop for Greyhound.

The city, which owns the property but has not acquired the building, believes the facility could house up to 160 beds and temporary storage lockers for homeless people, and is properly situated near other homeless services and a police substation.

However, homeless advocates and community residents differed on whether such a residence might be a step toward reducing the homeless population or attracting more.

City officials said they would continue to study the idea.

Meanwhile, it has been more than two years since the Chattanooga City Council approved spending nearly $3 million to acquire the Airport Inn on Lee Highway to convert it into housing for those trying to find their way back into homes. In January of this year, the City Council issued a request for proposals for a developer who would renovate the property and for a provider of services.

Since the wheels of bureaucratic government grind slowly on these matters, we think the idea of promoting assistance on preventing homelessness on the front end has serious merit.

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