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There’s Room at the Inn

Changing the lives of Chattanooga’s homeless women and children

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Carla with Allen & Chelsea

Carla Austin stared out the windshield of her car. She was still new to Chattanooga; a streak of bad luck with a touch of poor judgment had left her homeless in Morristown, Tennessee.

So she had migrated here with her two grandkids mere months before to stay with a longtime friend in town. She was able to find a job, working full time to support a house full of people until the living situation fell through — which it had that morning. After a series of disagreements, she’d been asked to leave.

Turning the key in the ignition, Carla took a deep breath — she knew full well if she didn’t find a place by tonight she, along with her 2- and 3-year-old, would be sleeping in the car that night. “It was hard. I was scared because I knew absolutely no one here,” says Carla. “I had no one to turn to and no support system.”

After bouncing back and forth between several different local churches as part of the Interfaith Homeless Network for a few weeks, Carla was finally referred to the Chattanooga Room in the Inn, an organization that works to get homeless women and their children back on their own feet, independent.

“They were very accepting at Room in the Inn,” says Carla. “It felt like a step up being in a more stable environment. I felt like a failure for a time. It took a little while, but things came together and I was able to feel secure.”

With a car and a job already at hand, Carla flew through the program at Room in the Inn in a matter of a few months.

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Erin Creal

According to Executive Director Erin Creal, however, that is not always the case. Creal explains that some women begin the program at what she calls “ground zero”— no job, no car, no diploma and limited options. The staff works to build the women up from wherever they are, helping them to create self-sufficiency plans and encouraging them to meet their goals. “If someone comes in without a high school diploma, one goal for them would be to get their GED,” explains Creal. “The one thing that helps them graduate is if they don’t engage in the drama. Carla was a good example of that; she was always helpful and very grateful.”

"It’s not a free ride," says Creal. When a woman moves into the Room in the Inn, she is initially expected to stay for only 30 days and receives a set of supplies. After 30 days, she can apply to stay up to nine months or until she is self-sufficient.

After receiving that set of supplies, the woman then has to earn “CRITI” cash — a form of fake money that is as good as actual cash within the walls of the Inn. Women can earn cash by attending life-skills classes, completing their assigned chores and showing up for child advocate meetings and case management meetings. They are also required to save one-third to two-thirds of their cash — real and CRITI.

“We are not just handing it over anymore. Before we were just giving stuff out all the time,” says Creal. “We want them to feel like they are contributing to the value of their life. They are given the choice, with good or bad consequences as a result depending on what they choose. My hope is that they take what we can give them and learn how not to be homeless and dependent on public assistance. I want them to know they are capable of being independent.”

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Up to 13 women and their children can stay at CRITI at one time, though it may be cramped at such capacity. The women work together to clean the kitchen, playroom, common areas and others. To really learn the in-house cash, though, the women must attend the life-skills classes and case management meetings.

“A lot of ladies complained at having to be in at 5 or 5:30 [p.m.] and about the chores,” Carla says. “They felt like freedom had been taken from them, but we had a roof over our heads and the kids fed. I don’t have a problem following rules; I can conform. What’s one or two chores?” “The workshops they had actually had potential to give you good tools,” Carla adds.

According to CRITI volunteer Debie Mikel, who teaches a life-skills class at the Inn at least once a month, the women who attend the classes learn everything from resumé writing to basic budgeting to what to do in a crisis situation. Mikel got involved with CRITI 10 years ago, when she found herself unemployed. Although Mikel still had a home and provisions, she was drawn to the women who were without.

“I was in a similar situation with being unemployed, so I could relate to that feeling,” says Mikel, who is now the technology manager with Public Works Chattanooga. “I think the women have a really great group of people that are nurturing and encourage them. What a great opportunity it is for them to house them until they are ready to go out on their own and be more independent.”

"It’s not a free ride," says Creal. When a woman moves into the Room in the Inn, she is initially expected to stay for only 30 days and receives a set of supplies. After 30 days, she can apply to stay up to nine months or until she is self-sufficient.

Mikel adds that when she teaches the classes, she tries to encourage them to do some soul searching to find the value that is already within them. One question she’ll often ask during the resume writing class is “What are three things you have done in the past that would impress employers?”

The children that pass through the doors of Chattanooga Room in the Inn are just as much a part of the organization’s family as their mothers. Behind the brick building on North Highland Park Avenue sits a colorful playground with a playroom inside that is full of toys.

Perhaps more importantly, though, is the child advocate that’s a part of CRITI’s staff. The child advocate coordinates the tutoring program and children enrichment program on site, as well as teach the mothers how to advocate for their children. The activities are meant to be therapeutic and educational in an effort to prevent homelessness for the kids when they also become adults, explains Creal. “The kids are so cute and some of them are just starved for attention,” she says. “It’s hard, but that’s why we are here. Otherwise they might not have homes.”

Today, Carla has her own apartment for Chelsea, 4, Allen, 3, and herself. She just got a promotion that means she can spend more nights at home without having to work overtime.

Though now she says she isn’t able to save as much money as she could while staying at Room in the Inn, she is still happy to finally be self-sufficient. “I tell myself, I might be broke but I’ve got a roof over my head, lights, food, clothes … we’re good.” She adds that she wants to start volunteering at CRITI. “I think it would kind of keep me reminded of where I came from.”