Jefferson Heights in Chattanooga’s Southside is a close-knit community that represents a throwback to family-oriented neighborhoods from years ago. Residents regularly visit on front porches, congregate at the local park and share produce from tending to the area’s community garden.
There is also a Jefferson Heights online message board to keep everyone connected, announcing upcoming events and news tidbits involving community residents. But lately, the various entries on the site have read more like a police blotter.
The persistent issue of homelessness in Chattanooga has taken root in Jefferson Heights, and some troubling events over the past few weeks have resulted in a mixture of unrest and anger among many in the neighborhood.
A homeless encampment has emerged off Main Street adjacent to the railroad overpass near Central Avenue. The area is separated by a fenced enclosure of a large concrete slab along Madison Avenue, and the squatters are concealed by a thicket of trees along the railroad right-of-way.
Since occupying the space in late February, there have been multiple encounters with local residents along with a corresponding rash of personal property suddenly disappearing. Chattanooga Police have been contacted on numerous occasions to handle public domestic altercations and to file reports on the stolen items, but the problems persist.
The presence of the encampment took on a more dangerous tone last Thursday night when an explosion and resulting fire awakened neighbors. Inhabitants of the new settlement were seen running down residential alleyways fleeing from the incident, with rail traffic suspended while the blaze was brought under control.
Previously, two of the campsite residents have threatened physical harm to Jefferson Heights residents, and families have had their young children exposed to violent fisticuffs among a homeless couple on the sidewalks along Main Street while attempting to enjoy the solitude of their backyard.
During the past few weeks numerous bicycles have been stolen from porches, and one homeless individual was caught on camera carrying three bicycles while riding on a fourth. Sheets of plywood were removed from a nearby construction site and transported to the encampment, leaving residents exasperated by the lack of a remedy from local officials.
One resident, Zac Adams, expressed his frustrated by the ongoing threat to his family’s quality of life and safety. “When I contacted the police, they told us to contact the city. The city told us to contact housing, and they told us to call police. So we literally got the triple run-around. After the brawl a few days ago, all the police did was separate them, talk to them and drive them 100 yards back to where they live. We are like, ‘What is going on?’ The next day the woman confronted a neighbor and told us to mind our own business. It’s been a comedy of errors with the police and we get no reply at all from repeated requests to our City Council member.”
Adams had over $30,000 of property stolen from his garage late last year, and another resident who recently had her daughter’s bicycle removed from her porch also had her car filled with gifts stolen in front of her home on Christmas Eve.
Neighbors regularly witness the homeless residents riding bicycles through the streets during the day, but the lack of solutions has created a different sense of captivity than that brought on by COVID-19.
Tricia Adams said, “We understand the times and what the pandemic has created. The problem is they are becoming more brazen, and my kids were 100 yards away from a window when that explosion occurred. We are sympathetic to the fact homeless people need help, but we have no one pointing us in the right direction to find a solution.”
Ashley Brown has made numerous attempts to seek assistance with the recent rash of incidents, but to no avail. She said, “The police informed me to call 311 because they deal with city codes. When I called 311, they said they didn’t know why I would call them. When they started stealing bicycles I called the non-emergency number and had an officer tell me they could do no more than issue a citation. They advised me to file a complaint with City Hall, which is closed due to COVID. How much longer will they continue to ignore our complaints and use COVID as an excuse to not act?”
The matter has become troubling to families forced to shelter in place at home with their children.
Brian Beise said, “Hearing from neighbors about people camping in the neighborhood having fights in the park, stealing belongings, and even threatening people makes it harder to feel my kids are safe around their own home. I understand the unique challenges the city government is facing right now, but residents feeling safe in their own neighborhood has to be a high priority. It's basic stuff.”
It’s a shame that the pleas of Jefferson Heights residents of have fallen upon deaf ears to this point. Hopefully the leadership and safety officials of Chattanooga will intervene before the situation worsens, finding the needed help for the homeless population as well as allowing this vibrant community to again spend less time monitoring crime.