This story was updated at 4:38 p.m. on Friday, April 22, 2022 with more information.
Homelessness in southeast Tennessee is rising for the second straight year, with particularly high jumps in Hamilton and Bradley counties, according to data released Friday by the Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition.
The data, collected during the region’s one-time annual homeless count, showed a 153% increase in homelessness in an 11-county region including Franklin, Grundy, Marion, Sequatchie, Hamilton, Bledsoe, Rhea, Meigs , McMinn , Bradley and Polk counties.
Between 2021 and 2022, the number of homeless people in the region increased from 1,217 to 3,084.
The number of homeless people in Hamilton County has increased 177% since 2021, from 364 to 1,008. The county saw a similar, though smaller, spike between 2020 and 2021 when homelessness increased by 81%.
Advocates working on the issue told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that the larger the problem becomes, the harder it will be to solve and the resource impact will diminish.
Wendy Winters, executive director of the Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition, said soaring rent prices are pushing people out of their homes or making life in Chattanooga inaccessible.
The coalition has received grants in recent years to help ease the burden and incentivize landlords to rent to low-income people or people experiencing homelessness. But the coalition has come up against a double problem: the reluctance of landlords to rent to certain people and the low availability of housing stock in the region.
“The market is such that it’s hard for us to compete, even when we’ve been able to do things to incentivize owners, like double deposits and signing bonuses,” Winters said. “We constantly outbid.”
The new data shows jumps in specific populations across the region, such as in women who increased by 387% and in people aged 18 to 24 who increased by 207%. Blacks in the region experienced a 386% increase in homelessness, according to the report.
Winters said the data underscores what workers have seen anecdotally, particularly more women living homeless or in unstable housing situations.
The coalition will use this data to help create targeted programs to address the issue holistically and among certain subgroups, Winters said.
Last year, the Homeless Coalition received a grant of more than $2 million from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development to address youth homelessness. Likewise, in 2020, the coalition received a $2.5 million grant from the state, made possible with money from federal COVID-19 relief funds.
With growing needs over the past two years, even large grants have been exhausted, Winters said.
“With that kind of money, with the numbers we had before COVID, we could have housed everyone,” she said. “But as we realized how bad the affordable housing crisis was, it became clear that we weren’t going to end homelessness. We thought maybe we could end homelessness. homelessness for sub-populations, such as women and children.”
Alexa LeBoeuf, president of Cosette Consulting, which is involved in the local eviction prevention initiative, said it was time to tackle the problem. She pointed to the growing rate of outside investors buying rental properties as another factor driving up housing costs as wages stagnated.
“The higher these numbers get, the more difficult the problem becomes to solve, especially when it reaches a crisis level,” she said.
LeBoeuf said she was encouraged by efforts across the city, by the government and other groups, to address the issue.
Ellis Smith, director of special projects for the city of Chattanooga, said the city is working on several short- and long-term projects to address the issue.
In March, Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly announced plans for a five-year, $100 million affordable housing initiative, including $33 million in seed money from the city. The project will involve public-private partnerships with non-profit organizations, banks and other groups to expand the supply of affordable housing.
Smith said the city estimates there is an affordability shortfall of about 5,000 units in Chattanooga. The city council is also considering efforts to limit non-owner occupied short-term rentals.
The city plans to officially launch a supervised homeless encampment on 12th Street before the end of May, Smith said.
“We know we have a long way to go, but we’re focused on this issue,” Smith told The Times Free Press by phone Friday afternoon.
Between June 2020 and November 2021, the city’s Eviction Prevention Initiative helped 184 households, including 400 people and 220 children, stay in their homes.
The program, launched as a pilot project in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, received $500,000 from the city in September 2021.
In a quarterly report presentation to council last month, the program said about 64% of people helped in the county were black, although black residents make up 19% of the county’s total population.
The report showed that local eviction filings in the first few months of 2022 were returning to pre-pandemic rates as the federal eviction moratorium ended in August 2021. Data from the program showed the importance for tenants to have legal representation in eviction proceedings – 71% of cases resulted in evictions by monetary judgment in the absence of a lawyer, compared to dismissals or non-prosecution resulting in 69% of cases when the tenant had a lawyer.
Woodson Carpenter, communications and engagement coordinator for the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga, said the number of people helped by the eviction program and the growing rate of homelessness show that the nationwide conversation county on affordability must continue.
“What’s driving a lot of that is watching those housing prices, whether it’s house prices or mortgage costs or rent costs,” Carpenter said. “We are also seeing that wages are lagging. As these prices continue to rise and wages are lagging, this is really a problem for all of us and especially the most vulnerable in our community.”
Many of these issues were present before the pandemic began nearly two and a half years ago, but have been made worse by COVID-19, he said.
“We don’t have complete control over the macro environment, but we can be responsive and we can be ready for any changes that lie ahead,” Carpenter said.