published Monday, April 23rd, 2012

Community Kitchen pushes for homeless shelter

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    John Nutter makes himself comfortable on the floor of the Chattanooga Community Kitchen with a mat and blankets in this file photo.
    Photo by Laura-Chase McGehee /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

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From November until March, the Chattanooga Community Kitchen operated nearly 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to provide shelter for more than 100 people who had no place else to go.

Kitchen officials said they can't do that again this November, at least not in the same way.

"It was incredibly taxing," Kitchen Assistant Director Jens Christensen said. "Having people together 24 hours a day. It was cabin fever. There was no time to maintain the facility."

The hope is that an agency or some group of agencies will step up to provide a second permanent emergency shelter to help people get into permanent housing. So far, no organization or agency is filling that gap.

The Chattanooga Rescue Mission offers the only emergency shelter in the city, and it has only 60 beds.

"We need to look at how our resources can work together and then figure out how much is needed to fill in gaps," said Mary Simons, executive director of the Chattanooga Homeless Coalition. "We're at the point where all of the partners are being identified. It's yet to be determined what others can bring to the table."

Chattanooga Community Kitchen officials started meeting with 37 social service agencies and city representatives this month and plan to meet with them throughout the summer to share what the kitchen has learned through its hands-on experience.

The kitchen provided the bare necessities: a dry, controlled climate with mat, blanket and bathroom facilities. No job skills training. No counseling. Yet about 118 people on average stayed there every night, said Christensen.

The youngest client was 6 months old; the oldest was 80.

The kitchen spent about $300 a night to operate the shelter, and that's one of the reasons officials say they can't do it again. Operating at that cost creates no sustainability, said Christensen.

It amounts to about $2.50 per person, but a more accurate cost may be about $8.50 to $11.50, the cost the Federal Emergency Management Agency reimburses per person for each night in a shelter. Christensen said the kitchen received no money from FEMA to operate its shelter.

Casey Kendall, case manager for Chattanooga Room in the Inn, which provides transitional shelter housing for homeless women and children, said she knows Chattanooga is capable of providing emergency shelter.

"There's obviously a need, and there's money in the community," she said. "It's just: What do we want to spend the money on?"

Even this spring when weather isn't as cold as in the winter months, the Room in the Inn has been filled, she said.

A CHOICE

Maybe people sleeping under a bridge or in an abandoned building want to sleep at the Community Kitchen, but they should at least have a choice, said people visiting the day room at the kitchen.

Carol Phillips said she has slept in a tent on ice in the cold because she had nowhere to go.

"We have had so many people dying, being cold," said Phillips. "There is a big need to have something for women, families, for everybody."

Twenty-three people who were helped by the Community Kitchen died in 2010, and at least one of them died as a direct result of the cold, said kitchen officials.

The kitchen started operating the emergency shelter in 2011 to make sure there was always an alternative to sleeping outdoors in cold weather.

CITY RESPONSE

Richard Beeland, spokesman for Mayor Ron Littlefield, said the city can't provide a shelter but it can work with another agency to help find a spot for a shelter and help secure all necessities to operate it.

The goal is also to work collaboratively to provide programming that will get people who come to the shelter into housing. The shelter is not a destination, Simons said.

Christensen said that, ideally, the group will have a plan organized for a shelter by November.

Albert Greer, a homeless man, said he's seen some people turned away at the Chattanooga Rescue Mission because there aren't not enough beds.

"That's not enough to accommodate all of the people on the streets," he said.

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about Yolanda Putman...

Yolanda Putman has been a reporter at the Times Free Press for 11 years. She covers housing and previously covered education and crime. Yolanda is a Chattanooga native who has a master’s degree in communication from the University of Tennessee and a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Alabama State University. She previously worked at the Lima (Ohio) News. She enjoys running, reading and writing and is the mother of one son, Tyreese. She has also ...

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