In 1982, seven downtown Chattanooga churches (Christ Episcopal, First Baptist, First Centenary United Methodist, First Christian, St. Paul’s Episcopal, St. Peter and Paul Catholic and Second Presbyterian) realized that their individual efforts were not meeting the needs of Chattanooga’s growing homeless population. Several of the churches were offering meals and assistance with clothing, but the times, places, and amounts were irregular and loosely organized. The churches teamed together in the creation of a meal-a-day feeding program, originally housed in the bottom floor of Christ Church Episcopal. Thus the Chattanooga Community Kitchen (part of Chattanooga Church Ministries, Inc.) was born.
Much like a soup kitchen, the feeding program continued for several years and the Community Kitchen didn’t really grow until 1986 when the central, 727 East 11th Street building was purchased and the 525 McCallie Corporation (as it was known at the time), chose to relocate the Kitchen and all of its services to 727 East 11th Street. Oddly, this building was a secondary choice. Originally, it appeared that the Kitchen would be housed on McCallie Avenue (hence the original incorporation).
For the next several years, the Community Kitchen continued to grow. Two night shelter contracts were acquired. The Community Kitchen would operate them, but they would be housed in the respective churches. St. Matthew’s Shelter for men is housed in Second Presbyterian Church; St. Catherine’s Shelter for women and children is across the street in St. Paul’s Episcopal. We still operate both shelters today.
In 1988, the Hamilton County Health Department took an incredible leap, recognizing the need for aggressive actions to abate the rampant spread of disease and progressive decline in health among the homeless. They opened the doors to the Homeless Health Care Center, a remarkable primary care provider that is accredited by the Joint Commission on Accreditation for Healthcare Organizations, and is among the nation’s first freestanding health care facilities for the homeless. The clinic, as we call it, was housed in the central Chattanooga Community Kitchen building; it offered (and still offers) case management, substance abuse treatment, mental health aid, and full wellness with medical professionals on staff.
The next year, in 1989, the Community Kitchen, in cooperation with PIC, received a HUD grant to begin a homeless job training and placement program. It was called, fittingly, the Job Placement Center. For the first time, homeless men and women in Chattanooga had a program to help them prepare for, find, and maintain employment. This was not only a Chattanooga initiative, but a national precedent. The program later became known as HELP II, helping hundreds of homeless individuals secure employment and housing each year.
Meanwhile, the feeding program, once a simple meal-a-day program, had expanded to serve food four times a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. The Community Kitchen was growing, the services expanding. Our front room became a day center, with laundry facilities, phones, mail services, and restrooms complete with showers, available to all.
Still even more exciting events were happening. Men and women (at this time the primary homeless population) were in need of clothing, small household items, and basic hygiene items. The Community Kitchen opened the doors to a clothing and basic needs give-away program. People could now get what they needed, all in one place.
All of this growth led to the need for a serious fundraising campaign. In 1989, the earliest version of Fast Day kicked off. This first year capital campaign had a goal of $60,000. To date it has raised over $6 million dollars.
In the same year, our Charlie Hughes, Director of Operations at the time, walked outside and looked at dozens of bags of garbage sitting on the curb waiting for the city to pick it up. He looked up and down the street, and said, “There’s something wrong with this picture.” In that garbage he noticed tin, cardboard, aluminum, plastic. Our recycling program was born. Today, we operate as a full-service recycling drop off center; we unload and sort materials in-house, ultimately delivering them to the processing plants. Each year, we recycle more than 500,000 pounds, granting jobs to the homeless, and providing on-site job training.
Two years later, more exciting news came about when HUD informed us that we had been approved for our second granted program. This one, Supplemental Assistance for Facilities to Aid the Homeless (SAFAH) was designed to help women and their children with the transition to permanent housing from the shelter system. Two case managers would go into the shelters, encounter clients and follow them for six or more months once they entered permanent, approved housing. The case managers would also offer assistance with furniture, utilities, first month’s rent and deposits, as well as counseling, education, and employment needs.
The next year, 1994, brought even more remarkable changes. The Homeless Health Care Center had outgrown its cramped quarters. Having received fair warning, the Community Kitchen had managed to acquire the adjacent, eastern building (711 East 11th Street) and it was renovated to meet the clinic’s expanding needs. The new building was technologically advanced, up to date, and designed specifically as a clinic. Thanks to this move, the Community Kitchen’s staff was able to move into the old clinic area…finally, we had offices of our own. This enabled an expansion of the day center, and growth in our own services. We now had a day center manager to top it all off.
Meanwhile, our number of meals was continuing to grow, as was the number of homeless children. Our day center was becoming cramped, and our kitchen was in need of updating. It was small. However, it was around this time that we recognized another service we could provide…not just to the homeless, but also to the city.
In 1996, “Unsheltered Voices”, a magazine to showcase the artwork and poetry of the homeless was first published. We still publish this today on an as-able-to-afford basis. It is a beautiful publication, granting dignity to those we serve.
At the same time, the explosion of families and children into the homeless population was too much to be left alone. We began planning for and developing our third HUD program. The Family Housing and Learning Center (FHLC) became an on-site, ten unit transitional apartment complex. Two case managers would meet weekly with each of the ten families that lived there, guiding them through the challenges they faced, and overcoming barriers to success. Each year, approximately ten families moved from shelters, through the program, and on to permanent housing; some families were able to qualify and move into Habitat for Humanity homes. The first apartment was filled in 1999.
In that same year, the Kitchen was able to acquire the building to the west, 739 East 11th Street. Suddenly, we owned the entire north side of the 700 block of 11th Street. What would we do? The answer seemed simple. In 2000, we opened the doors to the Consider the Lilies Thrift Store. We still do exactly what our clothing give-away program did, but now we employ 12 people, many of whom are formerly homeless; again, this is part of our job training program.
Even more, in 2000, the Interfaith Hospitality Network was forming; we decided to convert some of our job-training office space into space for them, giving them free rent. In addition, realizing that families were needing more and more services, and having a harder and harder time finding them, we decided to close our existing day center, and provide a day center for the families in the network. Meeting one need is not always possible without sacrificing others.
As the next few years unfolded, many exciting changes came about. We had our kitchen fully remodeled. We developed a program (HELP III) to train local police recruits about how to handle the homeless. We dealt with floods and hurricanes. We learned, grew and maintained our compassion.
In 2008, we finally launched a plan to provide medical respite care for the homeless who need a safe space to recover from illness and injury, but do not meet hospitalization requirements, worker’s shelter for those employed in second and third shift jobs with no bed to rest in after they leave work, and a day center offering constant engagement with case management, as well as a unique, innovative approach to outreach.
This plan resulted in the renovation of the building that had housed our thrift store for many years. In this newly renovated space, we offer programs that approach homelessness in a new, innovative and proactive way. Just as the Homeless Health Care Center pioneered a new approach to treating the physical well being of homeless men, women and children, we hope our new facility will become a national model for addressing the underlying causes of homelessness.
In 2013, the Community Kitchen took ownership of three facilities that were previously owned by Rosewood Supportive Services to create a permanent housing program. The House of All Souls is a nine bedroom home especially designed to be a quiet, peaceful, and loving home for chronically homeless men with disabilities. Museum Street exists in two separate houses; one provides four bedrooms for homeless women with disabilities, the other house provides four bedrooms for homeless men with disabilities. All three homes provide a uniquely independent and permanent housing solution for the homeless.
For years, homeless families had few options as a result of inadequate shelter options that kept them together. Families often resorted to sleep in their cars or stay with family to avoid children having to separate. However, in 2012, after a local comprehensive assessment by the Maclellan Foundation, the plans to address family homelessness began to take shape.
In 2014, the Maclellan Foundation pledged to renovate the former Homeless Health Care Center, located on our property, into a 13 room facility where homeless families could have a place to go on the night they became homeless. Construction began in July 2014, and the Maclellan Shelter for Families opened in December 2014. As a result, homeless families now have access to the Kitchen’s comprehensive programs, such as meals, case management, job training, and other essential services.
Every day, the staff and volunteers at the Community Kitchen work toward meeting the needs of families, children, men and women—we work not only on meeting the needs of today, but also on addressing the needs of tomorrow.
Thank you, Chattanooga! We are glad to be a part of this wonderful community.