published Sunday, November 3rd, 2013

Cook: We won't treat a dog this way

For local dogs and cats that don't have a home, there are two major animal shelters in Hamilton County that provide shelter: McKamey Animal Shelter and Humane Educational Society.

Each shelter, according to employees there, can hold up to 500 animals. That's a total of 1,000 shelter beds for homeless dogs and cats in the region.

One thousand beds.

Want to guess how many shelter beds there are for homeless humans in the county?

"I'd be scared to," said Wayne Hammel, program director for the Union Gospel Mission.

Let's do the cruel math.

Family Promise, a program that partners with more than 50 area congregations to temporarily house homeless families, can shelter up to 25 fathers, mothers and children.

The newly renovated St. Catherine's Shelter has space for 14 women, children and infants. Nearby, St. Matthew's Shelter has beds for 10 men.

The Union Gospel Mission has space for 16 men. Partnership for Families, Children and Adults can shelter 14 homeless women and children at once.

Room in the Inn does not have overnight shelter. The Salvation Army's emergency shelter has closed.

Over on Holtzclaw Ave., the Chattanooga Rescue Mission has 14 beds for homeless women and 46 beds for homeless men. That's 60 beds, but sometimes, the workers there unroll mats and let the men sleep on the floor in the chapel, so, just to be safe, let's add in 10 more spaces for a total of 70 beds.

And that's it.

The grand total?

Homeless animals have 1,000 beds.

Homeless humans have 149 beds.

For every one shelter bed available for a man, woman or child, there are 6 1/2 beds for animals.

"You're kidding," said Hammel.

Hardly.

"I think it's insane," he continued. "Our values are so upside down on this issue. I have a dog. I love my dog and I don't want her out in the cold. But when we put dogs and animals above humans, we've got our values skewed."

Officials at the Union Gospel Mission, which is located at the bottom of Signal Mountain, are trying to raise money to buy a downtown building, and reopen as an emergency shelter. But not this winter. And they're not even sure about the next.

With the exception of the Chattanooga Rescue Mission (even there, sermons are given nightly), all shelter beds are tied to programming. In other words, if you are homeless and given a bed at one of these shelters, you also automatically enter into programming designed to provide long-term help with finances, addiction, employment, permanent housing and so on.

These programs are wonderful and good, but it also means that there is no place in the city where homeless individuals can walk up, no questions asked, and find immediate shelter for the night.

In years past, the Chattanooga Community Kitchen has opened its doors for a winter shelter, and there's a meeting this week to decide if such a thing can happen this winter. But that's just one season out of four and we'd need at least five more Kitchens to accommodate all the homeless folks in the county.

"At least 500 on any given night," said Victoria Freeman, with the Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition."That's only the ones we could find to count."

The disparity continues. The city of Chattanooga pays $1.5 million each year to McKamey for animal services. Hamilton County gives roughly $400,000 to the Humane Society.

Both the county and city have pledged $1.5 million each -- that's $3 million total -- for a yet-to-be-built police shooting range that's, ironically, located across the street from the Community Kitchen, which received zero dollars from either city or county.

Even within county commissioners' discretionary funding -- a combined total of $900,000 -- there is not one cent so far this year (from July 1 to October 25) that's been given to any organization that directly shelters homeless citizens.

Commissioners have funded ball fields, lawn mowers, fences, fire hydrants, staples for copy machines and a concession stand ice machine, but no shelter beds.

The 2014 Chattanooga budget gives zero funding to any organizations that directly provide shelter beds for homeless citizens.

Neither does the county budget.

"That's correct," said Mike Dunne, county spokesman.

Here in the city with all of our shiny awards -- Best Place to Live! and The Bolder of the East! -- we provide better housing to homeless animals than humans.

One homeless guy I know, who sleeps in his van, once told me how rough it was out on the streets. They treat us like dogs out here, he said.

If only.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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