Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, January 8, 2021

New help for the homeless, those pushed by pandemic

Metropolitan Ministries opens new facility amid growing urgency

New businesses often call attention to a grand opening with flashy banners, balloons and inflatables. But the only indication that there’s activity taking place inside the new office of Metropolitan Ministries on Rossville Boulevard is the green camping tent pitched outside the front of the stark white building.

BB Ryan, a local interior designer who worked on the renovated space, says a single homeless person occupies the tent, waiting for the day the nonprofit can open its doors and welcome guests in person.

MetMin’s executive director, Rebecca Welchel, is looking forward to that moment. After more than 15 years at its aging headquarters on McCallie Avenue and long after outgrowing its ability to operate comfortably in the space, Metropolitan Ministries is nearing completion of a $1.5 million endeavor to purchase and renovate a new home and a significant expansion of its mission.

Founded as an outreach effort of local Episcopal churches and now in its 41st year, MetMin is still seeking to “prevent homeless and foster hopefulness,” Welchel says. In response to the coronavirus pandemic, for example, the nonprofit has spent nearly $500,000 on utility bills and rent and mortgage payments for people who were laid off or whose businesses had closed.

“It’s a new world out there,” she says. “We’re seeing as many homeless people as we are people who are teetering on the edge of homelessness.

“And the homeless we’re most likely to serve are the first-time homeless, many of whom don’t even realize HUD would designate them as homeless. They’re sleeping on someone’s couch or they spent their last few dollars on a week at a motel.”

But with twice as much square footage as it had on McCallie Avenue at its disposal, MetMin is opening its door to more than its guests, it’s also welcoming other nonprofits into its space.

With room for six additional organizations, MetMin hopes to turn its new office into a mecca of sorts for the underserved. Not only will those who are facing homelessness be able to seek financial help from MetMin, they’ll be able to take advantage of the health care services Cempa Community Care provides, receive counseling at The Pursuit of Happiness and more.

“This will benefit the people we serve because transportation and access to resources aren’t readily available to everyone,” Welchel explains. “We’ll provide them with immediate access to the next step they need to take and form a kumbaya circle around their situation.”

Welchel dubs the nonprofits that are joining MetMin on Rossville Boulevard “pioneer partners” because they’re taking a chance on a dream that has existed since Project Homelessness Connect ended in 2008.

“Project Homeless Connect was a one-day service fair with 30 to 40 nonprofits, all with a common cause, all working together, all right there,” Welchel recalls. “I was bereft when it came to an end; we needed it for encouraging each other and coming up with solutions.”

Meanwhile, the lines outside MetMin grew, with the queue of people needing assistance often beginning to form at 4 a.m. and eventually wrapping around the 5,000-square foot building before the nonprofit’s staff unlocked the doors.

The need for a new and larger facility was great, Welchel says, so MetMin began setting money aside and looking for a new facility. About one year ago, “generous and enthusiastic donations” from people who shared the nonprofit’s vision provided the final financial boost, and MetMin purchased the former home of Choo Choo Printing on Rossville Boulevard debt-free.

Welchel says she believes MetMin found an ideal home – a section of Greater Chattanooga she says is rife with unemployment, crime and abject poverty.

“MetMin likes to go where angels dare. So, we looked for the areas with the stickiest poverty. It’s relentless here.”

Like the lives MetMin serves, the building had good bones but needed work. As Ryan sat down to design the interior, she removed everything except for some exterior shelves and a structural column she incorporated into her design.

As she then created a layout that would allow MetMin and its partners to work comfortably and effectively, crews removed asbestos, replaced the roof, installed new windows and updated the wiring and plumbing.

The finished product is a marvel of craftsmanship and thoughtful planning that turned a declining space into a sleek and ostensibly sturdy structure imbued with the capacity to serve.

From its large welcome area that greets guests with freshly painted teal, orange and yellow walls, to its line of partitioned desks focused on privacy and interpersonal communication, to its cloister of secluded spaces for MetMin’s partners, the nonprofit has fashioned a space designed to facilitate effective work.

Each partner will not only have its own office but also share access to a soundproofed board room for meetings, a classroom for teaching (once that becomes possible), work areas, ample storage and a large kitchen outfitted with industrial-grade appliances and enough counter space to host an episode of “Top Chef.”

Welchel says her favorite new feature is the solarium where workers and volunteers can “chill out” (and keep an eye on the occupant in the tent, who’s set up house just outside the door at the end of the space).

She’s also proud of MetMin’s grocery store, which features sparkling clean shelves and refrigerated units that will someday allow qualified guests to fill a brand-new grocery cart with canned and boxed goods, as well as perishables, they choose.

There is one feature Welchel says she hopes MetMin never needs to use. Out of the six bathrooms in the facility, two have tubs instead of showers in case the nonprofit needs to serve as an evacuation site for a mother and her children.

“We pray to God we never have to use it for that purpose.”

Standing in blunt contrast to its former home, MetMin’s new location is an “uplifting” space, Ryan says, and one that carries a message of “dignity, hope and energy.”

“Guests will walk in and feel like something good is going to come out of them being here.”

The building is also as green as renovations come, Welchel adds.

On the foundation of a $135,000 Good Use grant from Southface Institute in Atlanta, as well as matching funds from other sources, MetMin implemented enough environment-friendly features to achieve the coveted Energy Star rating.

LED lights, demand-controlled ventilation and Wi-Fi thermostats will help the nonprofit minimize its utility bills, while a bi-polar air ionization system will allow guests and others to breathe easy.

“We have six HVACs with every bell and whistle, including occupant sensors that can detect varying levels of carbon dioxide and automatically adjust the temperature accordingly,” Welchel boasts.

In an effort to be as clean as possible, MetMin researched installing and using solar panels, but in the end, the nonprofit decided its money was better spent on power from EPB’s Solar Share facility on Holtzclaw Avenue.

From building upgrades to green features, MetMin designed its new home with its guests and partners in mind. The latter include Love’s Arm, CALEB’s Community Bail Fund Project, Chattanooga Tumor Clinic, Cempa and Pursuit of Happiness – leaving room for one more nonprofit.

Mimi Nikkel, the founding director of Love’s Arm, says she loves her new base of operations and adds any new occupant of what MetMin has dubbed its Impact Hub will feel likewise.

“Being in a collaborative community with like-minded agencies and serving the needs of the poor and needy – including women survivors of trafficking, prostitution and addiction – is a dream come true for Love’s Arm,” Nikkel says. “We’re overwhelmed with gratitude for this amazing opportunity.”

As Welchel anticipates possibly welcoming guests in person after the first quarter of the new year, she’s grateful, too – not just for MetMin’s donors and partners, but for the people the nonprofit serves.

“When you’re diving along Rossville Boulevard, it might look like the kind of place where you wouldn’t want your car to break down, but we feel differently. We see only its assets, and we have been treated with such hospitality.

“There’s so much good taking place in this community. We’re not riding in on a white horse to save the day, but we do hope we can be a respite for people who need it and a home for any group that wants to be a part of this beautiful space.”