published Wednesday, November 13th, 2013

Cook: A dozen homeless stories

1. It's hell. I once heard of a man here who was sleeping under a bridge -- Veterans Bridge, I believe -- during winter. He drank vodka until he passed out, only to wake up when the rats began to gnaw on his face.

Would it surprise you if he drank again the next night? Could you blame him?

2. The Atlanta Braves are getting a new stadium; early estimates put the cost at $672 million. We watched the Braves lose to the Reds this summer, and probably spent $150 that afternoon.

We didn't give $5 to the people begging for money on the street corners.

3. Evan Gattis, Atlanta's beloved slugger, was once homeless. Kind of, sort of. Having walked away from an early baseball career to go on a spiritual quest, Gattis once found himself broke and alone in New York City. With an ATM balance of minus $17, he tried to sell his clothes, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, before someone gave him $10 for burgers.

Makes me wonder: would we have passed him by, too?

4. So far this year, the Chattanooga City Council spent weeks discussing legalizing backyard chickens, but hardly any time discussing our city's homeless crisis.

5. Last night and tonight, as temperatures drop below freezing, the Chattanooga Community Kitchen plans to open its doors as a temporary emergency shelter.

"We can hold up to 200," said Executive Director Charlie Hughes.

No final decision's been made on whether the Chattanooga Community Kitchen will open its doors all winter long, as it's done the past few years, Hughes said. Last year, the city funded the shelter.

The Kitchen has some good news: It's planning on renovating the former Health Care Center next door, turning it into a 13-room shelter for homeless families that should open next year, Hughes said.

6. Once, I spent the night at the Kitchen's winter shelter. We slept on mats we rolled out onto the floor; all night, folks coughed and sneezed. The men were in one room, women in another.

At the time, it seemed like a good idea: I dressed in old clothes, kept my mouth shut, thinking that doing so would help me understand homelessness more. In hindsight, it was a silly, patronizing thing to do. It was pretend poverty, like trying to understand a country by only looking at a map.

The next morning, one woman rolled up her mat, yawned a content and grateful yawn, and said something I'd never forget: I slept wonderfully. Just like a vacation.

A vacation? That?

7. Female veterans are the fastest growing homeless population in America.

8. Across the street from the Kitchen, Family Promise of Greater Chattanooga is celebrating its 15th year in Chattanooga. Since 1998, Family Promise has served more than 2,000 homeless people, including more than 1,200 children and 600 families.

Family Promise partners with area congregations to house homeless families for a week or so inside the church (they sleep on cots and beds in rooms that aren't used during the week). Volunteers cook dinner, help with homework, spend the night, comfort, console and befriend. During the day, families receive help they need to get their lives back in order.

"Eighty percent of these families transitioned to permanent housing," executive director Mary Ellen Galloway said.

Is there a better success rate in the city?

Not long ago, Family Promise (it used to be called Interfaith Hospitality Network) moved into its new Day Center on East 11th Street. It's beautiful, like this oasis in the middle of rough-and-tumble streets.

"Transportation, counseling, case management, life skills classes, laundry and bathing facilities, a nap room, library, indoor and outdoor play areas, play therapy, computers and GED tutoring," said Galloway.

9. The heartbeat of Family Promise rests with the congregations that volunteer to help. Now, 51 congregations have partnered with Family Promise.

10. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of other congregations in the area that could as well.

11. This Saturday at First Tennessee Pavilion, Family Promise is hosting its annual Box City Camp Out to Stamp Out Homelessness fundraiser. Families, youth groups and volunteers will set up tents and cardboard boxes, recreating an urban campground (if only such a thing could happen in real life). They'll eat at a makeshift soup kitchen, and enjoy games, music, crafts, a scavenger hunt and hot chocolate.

Visit fpchatt.com or call 423-756-3891 for more information.

12. Jesus once said: blessed are the poor.

I'm still not sure what he meant.

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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