Homeless hit hard by floods

Dozens of homeless people who live in the Chattanooga area were hard hit by recent floods.

BY TRAVIS DUNN | CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. | May 14, 2003


For the dozens if not hundreds of homeless people who live in tents and boxes and boxcars around the city, last week's floods took away what little they had, including the life of one man, whose body police have yet to identify.

"It affected our regular homeless population tremendously," said Charlie Hughes, executive director of the Chattanooga Community Kitchen. "Many of them who live in campsites lost everything."

The Community Kitchen, a local interfaith effort to help the homeless, was founded by seven churches 21 years ago. Hughes has worked here for 14 years, and today, local support has grown to include 43 churches.

"They saw a need hungry people and they started doing lunchtime meals," Hughes said.

Today the Kitchen and affiliated programs take up an entire city block and provide a wide range of programs designed to integrate the homeless into mainstream society.

That task will be even more difficult, Hughes said, now that many of his clients have been left with only the clothes they were wearing before the flood hit. Hughes, however, is still optimistic.

"It may be me just trying to put a positive spin on everything," he said, "but there could be some good to come out of this."

Hughes hopes that the city's homeless, the ones who make only occasional use of the Kitchen, will now be forced to spend more time there, thus giving him and his workers a chance to enroll them in various programs.

"We're a full service agency that has many components," he said. "Many times, it's a drug or alcohol issue, or a mental health issue. This may give us another opportunity to get in their face."

Detox and rehabilitation are only some of the services offered; job training and transitional housing are others. Nearly half of the Kitchen's employees were once street people, including a front desk clerk, who, although he now has a full-time job, still works part-time at the Kitchen because of how he feels it changed his life.

Hughes point to a mural in the Kitchen, painted by local artist Ron Asberry, one of Hughes' success stories.

"Five or six years ago," Hughes said, "he was a living on the streets a crack addict." Today Asberry is a member of the Chattanooga arts community. "He does murals all over town. He's a super guy."

Ron Fender is another worker at the community kitchen who is hoping to help the homeless flood survivors. The man found dead after the flood, Fender thinks, may have been one of his friends.

Fender is not just an employee of the Kitchen; he is homeless himself.

Fender, in a bid to join the Episcopal Brotherhood of Saint Gregory, based in Cambridge, Mass., took three vows last year: poverty, chastity and obedience. Then he moved to Chattanooga last October, in order to make his vows a living reality.

He spends every day among the city's homeless. Every night he sleeps in a cot, just like everyone else with nothing left to lose.

"Justice delayed is democracy denied," reads a printed quote by Robert Kennedy, posted on Fender's office door. Pictures of Kennedy, Christ, James Dean, Cesar Chavez and Jack Kerouac adorn the walls and desk of his cramped, cluttered office.

These are his heroes. Fender doesn't just read their words and nod assent. He tries to translate their thoughts into action.

"I am blessed to have wonderful heroes," he said. "They are very much alive with me."

Fender was once a literature teacher, at various colleges and high schools, as well as a professional theater director. Now "on the dark side of my 40s," Fender has left that life, and all its material trappings, far behind him. He sees his work as following in the footsteps of Christ, and not merely worshipping passively.

"I didn't want to just work with homeless people. I wanted to be a homeless person with them. I felt that was really important in order to understand homelessness," he said. "Christianity is very simple. It's so simple that we humans can't do it. Love one another. Judge not. Christ tells us to pick up our cross and follow him."

All he has left are a few books, some family photos and his clothes. Everything else, he chucked.

"I got rid of everything. I gave everything away," he said. "Jack [Kerouac] said if you own even a rug, it's too much. I have discovered a great freedom in poverty and a tremendous peace."

Fender isn't sure how many homeless were affected by the flood. The homeless population here is constantly shifting, he said. Chattanooga lies at the nexus of several interstate and railroad routes. The number of homeless in the city, at any given time, is almost impossible to count.

But Fender knows of one homeless man who lost everything: a vet who lost his campsite, a week prior to the flood, to a fire. Fender helped the guy get himself set up again, and then the floodwaters swept everything away.

Some of his colleagues in this line of work might say that Fender was "enabling" the homeless vet, or helping him to perpetuate an antisocial and unproductive way of life.

Fender, however, doesn't look at it that way. He gives the example of a schizophrenic man, who is plagued by voices and "entities" so real and persistent that he cannot remain around a group of people, such as he would encounter in a homeless shelter, without being impelled to homicide. To Fender, it makes sense that this guy keeps himself isolated in a makeshift campground. And the man apparently has at least one friend in Fender.

"They [the voices] don't know whether I should trust you or not," the man once told him, "but they like you."


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