By Charity Chaney, Jake Sonke, and Marvin Olasky
At the northern end of East Eleventh St. in Chattanooga sits the historic Warehouse Row, a set of red brick industrial buildings-turned-upscale mall with stores like Lululemon and Anthropologie. A few blocks southeast, though, the brick walls lose their luster and trash fills the gutters. At 5:30 a.m. in January, the sun has yet to peek above the low mountains nearby, but the lights are on inside the CHATT Foundation Community Kitchen.
The CHATT (Center for Homeless Advancement Today and Tomorrow) Foundation offers three meals a day to homeless individuals. When night temperatures dip below freezing, CHATT also becomes an emergency cold-weather shelter, even though it’s short on space. CHATT staffers clear away tables and chairs from the dining area and daytime care areas, then set up four-foot-tall partitions and prepare up to 125 sleeping mats for those coming in from outside.
When we visited, temporary residents were lying on the thin mats, dozing fitfully or scrolling through videos on their phones. Men were in the upstairs day center, and women in the kitchen down the hall. Some used private showers, a laundry room, and a mailroom. A lone, armed security guard strolled through the shelter. Stacks of shoes, clothes, and other belongings sat beside the mats.
At 5 a.m. the next day the kitchen’s fluorescent white lights switched on. The sleepers had to wake up, stuff their backpacks and duffels, and be out by 6, even though it’s often coldest before the dawn. CHATT employees then started cooking for CHATT’s daily 7 a.m. breakfast. Later came lunch, after which CHATT to-go boxes littered the streets and the scent of cigarettes was heavy. Dinner was from 3:30 to 4:30.
Servers behind the kitchen counter were often familiar with the eaters, in part because the managers encouraged them to memorize faces and shoes so as to ration food consistently: one person, one serving. One woman came up to the counter for a third helping. The supervising chef for the day, Nicole, asked, “Haven’t you had two meals already?” The woman replied softly, gesturing towards her stomach: “Yeah, but I’m still hungry. You got more. What you gonna do with it?” “Save it for later,” Nicole said. When the woman walked away from the counter, Nicole said, “She’s trying to make me feel bad! At least she was honest.”
CHATT emphasizes its “trauma-informed” approach based in the expectation that the individuals it serves who live on the streets and in wooded areas—see the March 3 Fix Homelessness article, “Homeless Camp Reality”—are more likely to have physical and mental health challenges (plus drug and alcohol use) than those who live in shelters. Traumas include childhood neglect, sexual or other abuse, and experiencing or witnessing violence.
Harold, one of the servers, had been homeless himself. He praised one man who grabbed a plate of food and sat down: “Now that man has been working all day.” When another server asked Howard how he knew that, Howard first said, “Cause I know him,” and then called out to the eater, “Hey, you still working construction?” Without turning around, the man shifted the position of his backpack on the floor next to him to reveal his lime-green construction hard-hat. Harold said, “Yeah, that is a hard-working man.”
Along with eating and sleeping — the traditional “three hots and a cot” changed only to three meals and a mat — CHATT has a job training program that offers part-time, temporary employment, and a “Consider the Lilies” store that offers free clothing and other basics. CHATT’s 2022 annual report displayed some big numbers: 142,289 meals served, 5,991 emergency shelter beds provided, $359,722 worth of clothes given away, 1,077 haircuts provided, 817 foot care appointments. Some of those CHATT helps have no income, and others a little: 97% of those helped earn less than $15,000 per year.
Much of the effort keeps people alive. Occasionally lives change. CHATT highlighted a success story last year featuring Megan and her five children: three boys under the age of 11, two twins soon to be born. She not only had the stress of being a single mom but also worked as a waitress. She was able to move into an apartment with the City of Chattanooga paying transition costs and three months rent, and other government aid to follow.
Charity Chaney and Jake Sonke are students at Covenant College.