Mayor Defends Use Of City-Owned Lee Highway Motel To Help Homeless Get Back On Their Feet

  • Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Mayor Tim Kelly on Tuesday afternoon went before the City Council to defend the city's use of the former Airport Inn at 7725 Lee Highway to house some of the city's rapidly rising number of homeless individuals and try to help them get back on their feet.

Also, a public meeting on the project has been set for Oct. 26 at 6 p.m. at the Family Justice Center in Brainerd.

The city bought the hotel a year ago for $2,785,000. It has 73 units.

Becky Hansard, headmaster of nearby Silverdale Baptist Academy, hit "the gross lack of communication by the city" on the project. She said the school had been promised input, but only had one meeting with the city in September 2021 and another in June 2022.

She said, "The lack of communication causes me to ask why?" She said the city had never given the school the name of another facility where a similar program is working.

Morris Glasgow, who was the school is 2,000 feet from the motel, said his concern is "keeping our students safe." He said, "I will not support anything that's unproven."

Dr. Sudave Mendirra spoke in behalf of emergency room physicians asking support of the effort. Several of those who work with the homeless said they see a dire need for it.

Mike Smith, head of the Regional Homeless Coalition, said, "Housing is a human right. Housing is healthcare."

The leader of a group that works with the homeless told of going to Seattle and seeing similar programs that are working there. She said, "It looks just like another apartment complex." She said, "The solution to homelessness is housing and this is a part of that." 

Mayor Kelly said it had become an eyesore and a nuisance to the community. He said it now will be operated as apartments with those who enter being screened and then provided a range of on-site services. He said it will be fenced and under private security watch with cameras linked to the city's crime system.

The mayor said homelessness in Chattanooga has risen by almost 250 percent just in the past year, and this was part of the city's effort to find housing for some of those on the streets. He said, "They will have the services they need to get them back on their feet."

He also said, "There has been a tremendous amount of misinformation circulating about this project." He said his office should have done a better job explaining it.

The mayor stated, "This is not a homeless shelter. It's an apartment complex" that he said would look like other apartment complexes from the outside.

He said the Airport Inn was symbolic "of flea-bitten, hot sheet motels that breed crime in our community" and this particular one was being turned around for a better purpose.

City officials said of the project, "The city has purchased this boarded-up motel, which once rezoned will transform from a community nuisance into a facility that offers residents an offramp from homelessness, providing onsite services and security to residents. The city plans to identify a nonprofit to operate the facility through a request for proposals."

Mayor Kelly said, “This project is an essential part of our strategy to create more housing units for people experiencing homelessness who want to take the necessary steps to rebuild their lives. They’ll have the services they need, and from the outside you won’t be able to tell that the people living there have lived lives that are any different from yours or mine - and that’s exactly the point. This is not a homeless shelter, it’s an apartment complex with services onsite that keep people housed for good.”


He added, “This is a win for the community, this is a win for future residents, and it’s a story of renewal about how we turned a community problem into a community asset.”


Officials said the Airport Inn project will rehabilitate the entire facility, including improvements to the facade, fencing and green spaces, and the interior will follow the common practice of transforming hotel rooms into efficiency apartments.


 City Council is slated to vote on the rezoning proposal on Nov. 1.


Joda Thongnopnua, the mayor's chief of staff, said, "This permanent supportive housing model, which is relied upon nationwide to provide a critical off-ramp from homelessness, boasts a 90 percent success ratio after three years. In Hamilton County, of those who moved into permanent supportive housing over the last year, more than 97 percent remained housed, either in permanent supportive housing or another type of permanent housing.


"After three years on average, these residents typically graduate from support and are working full-time, paying sales and property taxes, and contributing to their community just as any other resident


 “We know that the only durable solution to homelessness is a home, and this solution bridges that gap for residents who have the potential to thrive in an environment with supportive services, helping them move off the streets and into a stable living situation. I think one of the big wins here is that through this process, we will also be able to transform an eyesore into a solution, as we continue to create a long-term structure that will allow us to exit more residents out of homelessness.”


 A screening process will identify eligible residents who are able to live semi-independently, and who, with the right combination of staff support and wraparound services, are on a trajectory toward more traditional living arrangements within three years, Mr. Thongnopnua said. 


 Officials said, "Across the country demand for shelters and vouchers have doubled and in some cases tripled since the pandemic. At the same time, the number of beds available for Chattanoogans to exit homelessness has decreased over the past several years, failing to keep up with demand, while the infrastructure required to deal with mental health and addiction has also not kept pace. Still, in the last quarter, the city alone has housed more than 100 individuals, and together with its partners has re-housed 2,000 residents since the beginning of the administration.


"The permanent supportive housing facility will further address the acute need for housing and services, and is one part of a multi-pronged strategy to address homelessness being pursued by the Kelly administration, which looks at both chronic and episodic homelessness and approaches each differently.


"Separately, the city is also in the process of standing up a low-barrier shelter and stepping up data collection efforts through the Regional Homelessness Coalition to better serve the different segments, and provide speedier exits from homelessness. The city also continues to operate its temporary sanctioned encampment in partnership with Help Right Here, which replaced an unsanctioned encampment that created safety concerns in proximity to an active rail line. 


"Part of the city’s strategy also includes a Chattanooga Police Department Crisis Intervention Unit to address mental health problems in real-time, as well as expanded bike patrols downtown to combat illegal behavior."


 “While we are working every day to generate additional units of housing our residents can afford and stand up additional services, we will not tolerate aggressive or threatening criminal behavior from anyone,” Mayor Kelly said. “We are taking an all-of-the-above approach and we will continue to make progress.”

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