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  • Writer's pictureMason Edwards!

Statistics & Support: Chattanooga’s Unhoused Population

By Mason Edwards, Rising Rock Media

Crystal Night and Walter Hairston, both of whom have difficulties walking due to health issues, sit in their home, a camp of tents on East Martin Luther King Boulevard. Thursday, February 16, 2023. (Photo By Seth Carpenter)

Not far from your home, grocery store, work, park and church, nearly 1,500 people sleep on benches and in abandoned lots in the greater Chattanooga area, according to data from the Chattanooga Regional Homeless Foundation from 2020 to 2021.

Without a secure place to sleep, Crystal Night, 45, sits in a wheelchair off East Martin Luther King Boulevard with several other camp members. They rely on local churches for water, good Samaritans for food, and burn hand sanitizer to warm themselves. Unfortunately, the city of Chattanooga seems more interested in dispersing them.

“It gets old, if we can’t build no foundation,” Night gestured at the camp. “They’d rather look away than listen to our stories. They separate all of us from each other… if we become one, we can get something done.”

According to her, Chattanooga Police have asked them to move six to seven times within the past six months– without telling them where they can go. Night’s complications from her untreated diabetes and other health issues leave her feet numb, making it difficult to walk.

Across Chattanooga, unhoused people like Night pitch tents when disability checks can’t sustain them. According to the Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition, from 2020 to 2021, the Chattanooga region experienced a 278% increase in unsheltered, unhoused individuals. 

Mackenzie Kelly, the coalition’s director of community engagement, believes that relocation policies and limited affordable housing keep people from finding permanent homes. 

“People still have to sleep somewhere, so clearing out an encampment does not reduce or end homelessness,” Kelly said. “…we’re removing people from their ability to get to their services as quickly and as easily… because downtown is where a majority of the service providers are.”

While Kelly explained that low-barrier emergency shelters, which do not have prerequisites, help people in immediate need of shelter, unhoused people who can’t afford to live need more permanent help.

“We have a huge population of folks who have been experiencing homelessness for a number of years,” Kelly said. “Permanent supportive housing is the model that kind of helps that chronically homeless individual find success in housing.”

Until the city finalizes plans to renovate the former Airport Inn and more permanent supportive housing becomes available, people without permanent housing rely on support from each other and community members willing to lend a helping hand. 

“We’ve become a family, that’s all we have out here,” Night said about her campmates. “They call me mom out here. I adopted them, just like my own.”

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