As Housing Costs Rise in Tennessee, So Does the Houseless Population

Encampment in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Image credit: Matt Hamilton / Chattanooga Times Free Press

Over 580,000 unhoused people live in the United States, and Chattanooga, TN is one location currently experiencing an unhoused population boom. According to the Chattanooga Times Free Press, the number of unhoused people has increased by 177% in the last year. And the year before that, from 2020 to 2021, it increased by 81%. Meanwhile, other communities in Hamilton County have also seen a 153% increase in the number of unhoused people in the last year.

There are reports of unhoused people being sent from one city to another (like Houston, Oakland, and Los Angeles) via either one-way bus tickets or through transfers from shelters in neighboring cities. A similar process seems to be happening in Chattanooga. Personal accounts and rumors abound that the city is the go-to destination for law enforcement and city officials of Atlanta, Nashville, and other neighboring cities to send their unhoused populations. But shuffling people between cities unwilling to provide them with the services to live a decent life doesn’t resolve a housing crisis – it merely moves it.

And, though the cost of living in Chattanooga is better than in some other cities, it is still unaffordable. The median cost of a single-family home rose 22% faster than the national average in the last year.

Despite this, county police recently destroyed one of the largest homeless camps in the city after Governor Bill Lee signed a law making public camping illegal. Homelessness is a failure of this system to provide the necessary resources for every person to live, but this law effectively makes it illegal to be homeless. Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelley isn’t off the hook either, since he chose to enforce the law with the brutal demolishing of over 150 people’s homes.

Though residents of the camp were asked to move to a shelter, it took multiple days for the electricity to be turned on, and some people were forced to wait out the winter months in tents in the parking lot. Residents of the shelter have also reported that its rules are too restrictive and cut away at their dignity and autonomy. While we can appreciate every effort to unite, enhance, and provide for the Chattanooga community, merely providing a new shelter for camp residents to move into is a far cry from affordable housing.

But can we really be surprised? Affordable housing isn’t a priority of this system. This was made especially apparent when 123 acres of land were recently set aside for 700 new houses in Lookout Mountain, Georgia, a Chattanooga suburb. The cost of the average home in the city of Lookout Mountain is above both the average in the Chattanooga metro area and the state of Georgia. How is the housing crisis being resolved by building new homes that poor and working-class people can’t afford? Plus, it was recently reported that some of this land was bought by one of the richest families in the area – the Cathy family, which owns the Chik-fil-A restaurant chain. They plan to build just one home there. This housing development project and the Cathy house are going to continue to neglect the needs of the quickly growing unhoused population in the area.

This is just another example of this system providing over and above for the rich, while neglecting the needs of the poor and everyone else. It’s up to us to organize for and demand affordable housing for everyone in Chattanooga, and around the world. This system has shown time and time again it won’t do it for us.