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Church reaches out to homeless families

Marcy Hall knew about the bed bugs and filth. She knew the children who got off the school bus at the extended-stay hotel lived in a "horrible place" with decaying stairwells and high crime.

"They were paying $800 a month for nothing," said Hall.

When city officials finally condemned the Superior Creek Lodge on Sept. 9, about 1,500 people including 300 families were immediately displaced. The former tenants panicked. Children didn't show up for school. People were seen walking down the street with pots and pans on their backs.

That's when East Ridge United Methodist Church went into overdrive. When the newly homeless families needed help, the nearest United Methodist church had already been in a relationship with them for three years. 

"The school social workers came to talk to me about the children," said the Rev. Ken Sauer, pastor at East Ridge UMC. "They knew us, because we were down there at the hotel every day."

Since 2012, East Ridge United Methodist Church has led an ecumenical outreach called East Ridge Cares 4 Kids, providing tutoring, mentoring, clothing, meals and summer camp for more than 250 children living in three extended-stay hotels. Marcy Hall won the Denman Evangelism Award for her ministry with the children during last summer's Holston Annual Conference.

"The church opened as a shelter that first night," said the Rev. Brenda Carroll, superintendent for the 59 churches of Holston's Chattanooga District. "East Ridge is a model for how churches should work, because they knew those families and their names."

East Ridge UMC brought 10 families (about 35 people) to live in Sunday school rooms, until they could find homes for them. Church servants then worked – along with other agencies including Metropolitan Ministries, Catholic Charities, and Salvation Army – to find homes, jobs, transportation and meet other needs for the refugees.

Two local United Methodist churches, Christ and Jones Memorial, each adopted two families. The Rev. Barry Kidwell of Mustard Tree Ministries, who has worked with Chattanooga's homeless for years, is providing counsel and aid to Hall, who recently moved the full-time crisis operation to her trophy and plaque shop.

"I couldn't have done any of this without volunteers," said Hall. She isn't paid for her ministry and has adopted one of the single-mother families.

As of Oct. 4, 2015 40 families in Marcy Hall's files had been placed in apartments and houses through the efforts of United Methodists, Metropolitan Ministries and other groups. Thirty-two more families still need permanent homes, Hall said. Organizers say they are trying to avoid the use of other extended-stay hotels, which can perpetuate the cycle of poverty and are also in danger of condemnation.

"The biggest challenge is just finding affordable places with landlords who will rent to them," said Anna Kat Horne of Metropolitan Ministries, a ministry of the Episcopal Church.

The crisis is expected to go on indefinitely, organizers say, as low-income housing diminishes in Chattanooga. The city has a 23.9 percent poverty rate, compared to 14.8 percent for the U.S., according the U.S. Census Bureau.

"We have a housing crisis here," said Eileen Rehberg, a community services director for the United Way of Greater Chattanooga. "We've got a disaster and no housing."

Yet Rehberg said she is inspired by East Ridge United Methodist Church (average worship attendance: 102) who started loving their neighbors three years ago and were ready when the crisis came. 

Annette Spence, Holston Annual Conference

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