Monday, September 1, 2014 · 2:36 p.m.

Reaching Chattanooga’s unreached homeless population

Interview: Jimmy Turner, co-founder and executive director of Relevant Hope

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Jimmy Turner leads a church service at a homeless camp. (Photo: Contributed)

Roughly 4,000 people experience homelessness in Chattanooga each year, and the city is home to numerous organizations dedicated to serving them. But no matter how hard they try to reach everyone, Chattanooga’s homeless aid agencies simply can’t. There are pockets of homeless people scattered throughout the city who are unwilling or unable, for whatever reason, to receive assistance from these local aid organizations.  

Burdened by this gap in assistance, co-founders Jimmy Turner and Dillon Burroughs launched Relevant Hope in June. The organization provides food, clothing, supplies, transportation, and spiritual and other assistance to homeless people living in various "tent cities" and camps around the area.

For more information

You can visit Relevant Hope online at relevanthope.org or contact them at 423-463-1414 or info@relevanthope.org.

Turner, who is also the agency’s executive director, talked to Nooga.com about the origins of Relevant Hope, the people it serves and how the community can help.

Where did the idea for Relevant Hope come from?

A few years ago, I went on a weeklong mission trip to Miami to help the homeless population. When I came back to Chattanooga, I felt a calling to serve our homeless population. I started working with homeless people in the area and serving them as best I could from personal resources and with support from the church where I was attending, LifeSpring Baptist Church (then called Maranatha Baptist Church). I also started donating resources and volunteering with local charities to help.

Every organization I found in our area that helped homeless people seemed to have one thing in common: The homeless had to come to their location to receive help. That led me to start asking around about whether or not the entire population was coming for help. I soon learned that at least half of the homeless population was not. When I asked local charities what they were doing to help those who weren’t coming to them for help, I received similar answers. In short, the existing organizations already have their hands full serving the people they’re serving. That’s when the idea for Relevant Hope came to me. Instead of providing a static location from which to offer services, I knew we needed to go to them and provide those same services on-site. 

How did you wind up partnering with Dillon?

I had met Dillon while taking classes at Tennessee Temple University, where he works as an adjunct professor. Shortly after we met, we learned that we both had a desire to serve the homeless population in Chattanooga and knew we needed to work together to make Relevant Hope a reality.

How has the reaction been from the other homeless agencies?

Chattanooga has many great organizations for helping the homeless in our area. The limited contact we have had with other agencies has been tremendously encouraging. That is one of the greatest parts of nonprofit charity: We are not competing for business. We all want the same thing, and that is to help people in our area who need it.

How do you find the camps that you serve?

Relevant Hope co-founders Dillon Burroughs (standing, second from left) and Jimmy Turner (standing, third from left) meeting on-site with residents of one of Chattanooga's homeless camps. (Photo: Contributed)

We have several techniques. The simplest way is to just ask. People already living on the street will sometimes tell you where others are staying. Local business owners are also helpful if they have people living close to their shops. Chattanooga police officers have also helped us with locating camps. Other times, however, finding camps is a matter of scouting areas where large groups of homeless people gather and exploring the woods and railroad tracks near those areas. A lot of the people we find in the camps are not coming to receive available services because they do not want to be around others. Those people are good at hiding deep in the woods or other remote areas. Sometimes, we have to spend hours following trails and asking around before we are able to find a single camp.

What services do you provide?

We serve them in a number of ways. One of the first things we do when we make contact with a camp is bring some food. It isn’t always a lot, but we at least want to provide a meal for them the first time they allow us into their living area. One of the most important ways we help them is by building relationships with them. We get to know them individually and learn their stories. Everyone we meet is someone’s mom, dad, brother or daughter; and they all have a unique experience that has brought them to where they are.

How receptive are they?

Some are more open than others, but we’ve been fortunate to receive a return invitation to every camp we’ve entered so far. The first need they have is to know that they are important. When we find someone who feels forgotten by society, it is important that they know they matter. We make it a point to let each person we serve know that we are out there specifically to find them and help them because we think they are important. We offer to come back and always bring something specific that they say they need. Sometimes, it is a can of bug spray. Other times, they just need us to come back so they can see we are for real.

What else do you provide for them?

We provide them basic necessities for life. We will provide meals, groceries, hygiene items, clothes, tents, blankets and sleeping bags. We will also prepare résumés for them, help them set up medical appointments, and give them a ride to interviews and work when the opportunity arises. Even though Relevant Hope is not a religious organization, everything we do is based on our Christian faith. That is why we also offer on-site, weekly church services for those who want them. They are never required to have them, however, and we will never refuse service to someone who does not attend a service.

How, in general, have the people you’ve met wound up homeless?

There are a few different threads that share some similarities. First, some of them lost their jobs during the recession, which caused them to lose their homes and lose all future hope, which usually means they do little to improve their circumstances. Second, there are some who have some sort of mental or physical disability and are unable to find work that will sustain the bills required to live inside. Third, there are some who have found themselves addicted to drugs or alcohol and would rather live outside where they feel less restricted and can live their life however they choose. Finally, the ones who are dearest to my heart are those many veterans who probably have undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and are unable to function well enough with other people to maintain employment.

How do they wind up in camps together?

Some of them end up together by chance, and others are brought together. We work with a group of four people who have known each other since a time when they all had jobs and houses of their own. Now, they have their own little tent city where they live together. In another case, however, we found a 65-year-old woman living by herself back in the woods. That same group of four offered to let her move her tent with them so she didn’t have to be alone.

How eager are they to get out of the camps? Has anybody left the camps since you've been working with them? Has anybody found a home?

Some are content to stay where they are, and we don’t try to convince them to leave their circumstances if they want to stay. Our desire is to help them where they are, and if they want help getting moved inside, then we will help them with that. We don’t believe in trying to force them into a house or apartment. Others are working hard to change their situation. We have one gentleman who, when we met him, had no hope for the future. Now, he is working a full-time job; and his boss is holding half his paycheck each week until he has enough to cover utilities and deposit. None of the people we have served have moved back inside permanently yet, but there are a few who should be living inside by the new year if they stay on track.

How can the community help your efforts?

We can’t do it alone. The community is the key to helping our efforts. They can help by offering some of their time. Because some of the people we encounter are on drugs or have some sort of mental handicap, we face dangerous situations, which is why we require that two people always work together in a camp. More people volunteering their time means we can be in more camps at the same time. Right now, one of our most urgent needs is for new tents. Winter is fast approaching, and many are still sleeping exposed to the elements. A tent could be the difference between life and death for some of them. Financial donations are always helpful, too. A lot of people aren’t sure what to buy or where to get the best deal. We have arrangements with local businesses and can buy at discounted prices.

We all need to remember that the people we see on the street are still people. They have thoughts and feelings just like the rest of us. When you walk past them and ignore them, it hurts those feelings and sometimes contributes to the thoughts that keep them captive in their circumstances. Even if you can’t give of your time or resources, at least smile and say hi when you walk past them. Keep a gift card in your car to hand them if you are worried about giving them money. Even if someone you see is an addict, he or she still needs to eat. Your responsible act of kindness could be the thing that changes them for the better.

Bill Colrus writes about (in no particular order) local news, culture, music and media. You can find him on Facebook, follow him on Twitter or reach him at billcolrus@gmail.com. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.

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