It's been 10 days since the Economy Inn on Brainerd Road was shut down, but the motel's former tenants are still picking up the pieces left by last week's chaos.
The pandemonium began on Valentine's Day when dozens of motel residents, including several families with children in Hamilton County public schools, were met by members of law enforcement walking the length of the building, telling them they had to immediately clear out. Officers informed tenants they had an hour to gather whatever they could take with them — everything else would be boarded up.
The mass eviction was the result of a nuisance abatement filed by Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston and signed by Criminal Court Judge Tom Greenholtz. Pinkston's petition stated the motel had been the "site of a disproportionate amount of illegal activity."
The motel's owner, Janice Hixson, appeared before Greenholtz on Monday and agreed to allow the building to reopen so long as she makes some changes, such as adding lights in the parking lot and hiring a full-time security guard. The motel still hasn't reopened, and Hixson isn't sure when — or if — it will.
Now displaced residents are hoping to get back not only the possessions they had to leave behind, but also the rent money they pre-paid a couple of days before the eviction. They're less enthusiastic about moving back into their old rooms.
"I have a bad feeling. What's to stop it from happening again?" said Gary Campbell, who was kicked out with his wife, Deborah. "They put everybody out like they did, and now it's like no big deal. We've been to two different places since then."
The Campbells are staying at another extended-stay motel, but it's costing them $217 a week — $67 more per week than they were paying before.
"It makes it tight. Everything kind of happened at once," Gary Campbell said. "Right before all of this happened, I had to put $400 into my car. The brakes had to be done, drums and everything, tires on the front. That just threw everything for all of us."
In the petition, Pinkston's office included records showing officers from the Chattanooga Police Department responded to the motel for more than 800 calls between October 2015 and December 2017, as well as testimony from officers that painted an unflattering picture of filthy conditions and illicit activity at the location.
Gary Campbell said he understands some of his neighbors were caught up in criminal activity, but that wasn't everyone at the motel.
"There's people like me who have a full-time job, and not everybody parties and does dope," he said. "I kind of hope nobody goes back to live there, but you know they will, and [Hixson] will have more riffraff people. More trouble."
The eviction also came with a cost to the agencies and groups that responded to the scene on Valentine's Day and worked with residents in the days after to ensure they had roofs over their heads.
Melydia Clewell, spokeswoman for Pinkston's office, confirmed the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department and Chattanooga Neighborhood Services were both contacted to help residents leave the Economy Inn, but others responded, as well. City officials confirmed that nearly $19,000 in federal funds was allotted to house tenants.
Metropolitan Ministries, a nonprofit organization that provides emergency assistance to hundreds of Chattanoogans every month, has worked to find permanent housing solutions for 37 households displaced by the Economy Inn eviction. The organization's executive director, Rebecca Whelchel, said they've spent about $12,000 to help.
"It's not state or federal or city money. It's not United Way money. It's neighbors. It's people who care about these folks that they will never meet, but understand that they are just as much a part of the community as they are," she said. "We keep a credit card loaded with a very high balance for times like these. We just jumped out and went to work."
Whelchel added that they will continue working with those people, but said more could have been done for those evicted if Metropolitan Ministries and the other groups had more time to prepare. She said they heard about the eviction just the day before it happened.
"If we had known, I would have pre-purchased a block of x-number of hotel rooms. I could have had transportation set up for those who needed it. I could have in hand Food City gift cards," she said.
The real victims in this motel shutdown, she argued, are the residents who have done nothing wrong but "got caught in the crossfire" anyway.
"I feel like a very deep and significant apology is owed to them," she said. "We are so numb as a people to collateral damage that it just doesn't matter. Apparently, these folks are seen as something less. That infuriates me."
Adam Holland, the attorney who represented Hixson in court on Monday and has been speaking publicly for her since the eviction, shares some of Whelchel's frustration. On Friday, he said he believes the district attorney's office is abusing the statute that allowed the nuisance abatement in the first place.
"They treated this the same way, quite frankly, as a search warrant, and it's completely different," he said. "This was an instance where I think the statute has been abused and it's been expanded beyond what the legislative intent was."
He said it would be different if Pinkston had been trying to shut down a prostitution ring or a place occupied by a gang manufacturing drugs, but that's not what happened here. In fact, he said, crime actually has been trending down since his client bought the property several years ago, but now she might not be able to afford a reopening.
"These places usually operate on very small margins. She's not a big national company that can easily absorb this kind of thing," he said. "If she can't reopen, obviously she'd be looking to sell it. I think she may be leaning toward finding a way to get out of this altogether."
Responding to Holland's assertion about the statute being abused, Clewell said, "If that was true, Judge Greenholtz would not have signed the padlock order and certainly would not have declared the business is a nuisance as defined by the law."
She also said the results of the process won't be known until the business reopens long term with the owner following the court's requirements to create a safer environment for tenants.
"If it cuts down illegal activity and eliminates the ongoing nuisance, then it will be better — and safer — for this community," she wrote in an emailed statement. "As the District Attorney General has said, we will continue to use nuisance abatement whenever and wherever needed to increase public safety."
Asked why it wouldn't be possible to threaten a property owner with a nuisance abatement if certain requirements aren't met instead of first pursuing an order that displaces residents, Clewell said "nuisance abatements don't work if the property owner knows you're coming."
This process has been acutely stressful for Alissa Housley, who has a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old daughter and has relocated to another extended-stay motel on the other side of Chattanooga with the city's help.
"It's been super hard, but I've got two small children watching me so I have to keep myself together for them," she said. "We need to get a place that's stable for us. Not here, there and everywhere. I feel like a nomad. Sometimes life doesn't go as planned, but I guess you've got to hit rock bottom sometimes to get where you want to be."
She's hopeful that she can put this "fiasco" behind her, but there's no telling what the future holds and she may one day find herself staying at the Economy Inn or some place like it.
"If it comes down to it and that was my only option, then yeah of course I'd move back in. I'm not going to be on the streets with two kids."
Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at email@example.com or 423-757-6731. Follow him on Twitter @emmettgienapp.