Staff Photo by Jake Daniels/Chattanooga Times Free Press Members of Chattanooga's homeless community board a bus for a shelter Friday afternoon. The Community Kitchen, which will open its doors to the homeless under certain conditions, will not be opening tonight.
Nick Keller was among 63 men and 14 women who stayed out of the subfreezing temperatures early Friday by sleeping on mats inside the Chattanooga Community Kitchen.
But with temperatures again expected to dip into the 20s early today and tonight, the outreach staff at the homeless health center decided Friday afternoon against keeping the downtown facility open another couple of nights.
With other overnight shelters full, the Community Kitchen has already stayed open 31 nights this winter -- eight days longer than a year ago -- to provide emergency shelter when wintry weather threatens the hundreds of Chattanoogans who sleep under bridges, loading docks and bushes.
But Keller, a 52-year-old former mechanic who suffers from diabetes and high cholesterol, said homeless Chattanoogans like himself need a place to stay when the mercury dips below freezing.
"It's inhumane not to open on a night like this," Keller said Friday night while preparing to sleep outside in the cold. "They need to be open."
The cold weather highlights the problem of finding shelter for many of Chattanooga's homeless men downtown, especially since the closing two years ago of the Union Gospel Mission shelter and the relocation of the Chattanooga Rescue Mission.
The Community Kitchen served a record 180,000 meals to low-income and homeless Chattanoogans last year and offers a variety of counseling, job training and drug treatment services. But other than opening up its doors during severe weather, the Kitchen is not a shelter.
"The decision about whether we stay open at night, which is governed by health considerations determined by others, is not a matter of comfort but of safety," Community Kitchen spokesman Jens Christensen said.
The only known case of a homeless man dying outside this winter occurred just after Christmas on a snowy night when the Community Kitchen was open as an emergency shelter, according to outreach coordinator Ron Fender.
The Salvation Army opens its downtown shelter to women and children and the Chattanooga Rescue Mission provides both long-term and emergency shelter for men and women at its Holtzclaw Avenue facility.
But Donald Baer, director of administration and chaplaincy services at the Rescue Mission, said the 80 beds in his shelter frequently fill up and some people have to be turned away, especially men seeking emergency shelter.
"We could certainly use more space, and we're hoping within a couple of years that we can open up the third floor of our building here to expand our capacity to 100 beds," Baer said.
So far this winter, 438 people have stayed at least one night on one of the mats laid out on the Community Kitchen floor when the 11th Street facility opens at night.
"Without us, a lot more people would be left out in the cold," said Charlie Hughes, executive director for the Community Kitchen. "But there is a need for more emergency shelters."
On the very site where many homeless camped out Friday night, Mayor Ron Littlefield had proposed building a homeless complex across from the Community Kitchen. That project has stalled, however, over environmental, neighborhood and economic concerns.
Nicky Wade, 49, hauls his sleeping bag, nine different medicines and life possessions on his wheelchair on the site once targeted for the city homeless complex.
"It's cold, but compared to some nights it's a breeze," he said.
Homeless advocates and sympathizers are planning a march from noon to 2 p.m. on March 4 to call attention to the plight of the homeless and to lift up the more than two dozen homeless persons in Chattanooga they say have died in the past year, according to march organizer Tobiah Tillman of Chattanooga Organized for Action.
Contact Dave Flessner at email@example.com or at 757-6340. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/chattreporter.