This article is the first in a series authored by students at Covenant College alongside Marvin Olasky.
By Rebekah Barbee, Anna McDonald, Paul Michael, and Marvin Olasky
The gate clanged behind Amanda Kent last month as she walked into Chattanooga, Tennessee’s only officially-sanctioned homeless camp, at the corner of E. 12th and Peeples. Tents, tarps, and bike wheels were piled behind her. The faded red of her hair stood out against the fresh black of her new Wendy’s shirt. Wendy’s bright red braids frame a face frozen in a smile. Kent was not so optimistic.
“I am wanting to get myself back on solid ground,” Kent said regarding her Wendy’s job and her tent in the campsite. The former Cocoa Beach, Florida resident moved to Chattanooga after hearing rumors of lower housing prices in Tennessee. She arrived in May 2022 with a daughter but did not receive a Section 8 low-income housing voucher—and in January was still waiting.
Kent, tall and pink-haired, suffers from epilepsy and has had seizures since she was about four years old. That’s also about the time her father walked out: she said her mother has had five marriages since then. Kent’s associate degree in culinary arts helped her pick up the Wendy’s job. She takes pride in preparing meals for others among the 40 homeless camp residents, but she’s disappointed about rental costs and said the city of Chattanooga “does not want to work with people struggling to make ends meet.”
Kent is engaged to another camp resident, Daniel Lockridge. They were friends as teens years ago in Florida, lost contact, but found each other at the Chattanooga camp and fell in love. Lockridge, a handyman, bought her a new, rich blue tent for Christmas. Raised by pallets off the ground to prevent overheating from the black pavement in the summer, it is now part of a sea of blue tarps and chairs. On a breezy afternoon those tattered tents flapped as Kent described a camp cleanup after a storm three days before.
The storm blew the camp’s supply and donation tent over a fence encompassing the one-acre lot. The entertainment tent—an arena filled with couches, games, and paints for the residents’ art classes—was too heavy to clear the enclosure. It stuck to the barbed wire lining atop the fence. Kent pointed to soot-stained piles along a fence. They showed what happened two weeks earlier when a propane tank exploded and two tents burned up.
The camp has room for 50, but those hoping to help Chattanooga’s homeless say there are a thousand more without shelter. Many, like their counterparts in other cities, are addicts or alcoholics with a “don’t fence me in attitude,” but those who go to the official, fenced-in camping site are willing to abide by some rules. “Broken people helping broken people,” Kent said: “It’s hard to constantly rebuild, and a lot of people lose a lot of faith, [but] trying to make a difference gives me hope.”
While local governments sometimes hire social workers to reach out to those living in homeless campsites, sometimes the best social work comes from an older resident who gains respect from those new to homelessness. Chattanooga’s officially-sanctioned site had an informal “mayor” of that kind, Jackie Lockridge, known widely as “Hillbilly.”
Hillbilly came from Alabama but moved across north Georgia throughout his 65 years. Kent called him “a big jokester and a huge flirt, but anytime you needed him, he was right there. He would do anything for just about anybody.” Hillbilly particularly liked to fix old bicycles to give to other homeless people looking for transportation.
One Chattanooga camp resident, AJ, with tears in his eyes and a quiver in his voice, said Hillbilly was like a father to him, “a loving asshole.” Kent called him “a charismatic asshole.” Hillbilly was the person camp residents went to with their problems: He would listen and try to help. Hillbilly died of a heart attack early last month. Two weeks later bike wheels, spare parts, and frames still surrounded his tent.
Kent asked her fiancé, Daniel Lockridge, Hillbilly’s son, to say a few words about his dad, but he shook his head and walked away. He sat off by his tent as Kent and AJ reminisced about Hillbilly and worked on the bikes left behind. Then Lockridge, now the handyman of the camp, took on the job of repairing tents the storms had scattered.