EAST RIDGE — About 40 residents of an extended stay motel gathered outside East Ridge City Hall on Tuesday evening after hearing from local schools that the motel would be closed Wednesday morning.
"There's no apartments available, the shelters are full, the hotels are full," said resident Jade Thacker. "The hysteria wouldn't be so bad if they just let people know ahead of time."
Around 700 people now live at the Budgetel Inn, a worker estimated. Residents said most units are rented on a weekly or monthly basis.
"The tragedy is, besides the trauma and displacement this causes, the homeless response system was not given any notification or time to plan," Mike Smith, executive director of the Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition, said in phone interview Tuesday. "I mean, tomorrow night, it's going to be so cold, people could die."
Smith said the coalition and other local organizations will be at the Budgetel early Wednesday morning to try to connect displaced residents with housing and services. Those with children or medical needs will be at the top of the list, Smith said.
An employee with the motel's parent company, JDH Developers in Atlanta, told the Chattanooga Times Free Press by phone Tuesday there was no information available about the situation with the East Ridge motel, off Interstate 75 on North Mack Smith Road.
Residents said they first heard about the potential closure from school caseworkers, who reached out to parents to make sure children would have a place to live if the Budgetel closes.
Hamilton County Schools spokesman Steve Doremus declined to comment directly on the situation in an email Tuesday.
"Hamilton County Schools works daily to provide available supports for students and families across the district to meet the objective of seeing all children thrive," Doremus said in a statement.
East Ridge motel residents react to possible closure
A Budgetel employee told the Times Free Press by phone Tuesday afternoon that motel staff were not told about its closing but said staff had also heard the rumors from residents and members of the media.
The employee, who declined to be identified, said a representative from Budgetel's parent company called the office earlier Tuesday but did not have any further information. The motel's front office was briefly locked Tuesday afternoon, and one of its two parking gates was closed and locked.
Residents said they heard from school officials that they would be asked to move out by 6:30 a.m. on Wednesday.
"I have no idea what to do," said Andrew Helms, who's lived at the Budgetel for about a year and a half. "I got my dog, my stuff, me, I can't find a place to live in Chattanooga anyway, so where am I going to go?"
Residents gathered outside East Ridge city offices at 5 p.m. Tuesday, following rumors that the city would be holding a town hall meeting to hear concerns about the Budgetel's closure.
A crowd arrived to find no meeting taking place and instead stood in front of the building's entrance with signs saying things like "Save Budgetel" and "Don't put my kids out." Residents shared pieces of paper and pens to make more signs on the spot.
East Ridge police officers present declined to comment.
Three residents told the Times Free Press on Tuesday that they had heard the order to close the motel came from the Hamilton County District Attorney's Office. The office did not respond to requests for comment by press time. An East Ridge employee reached by phone Tuesday declined to comment on the Budgetel and directed all questions to the District Attorney's Office.
Many of the motel's residents are elderly or have young children, they said, and most have lived there for at least a few months. Four residents told the Times Free Press that one woman living at the Budgetel recently entered hospice and cannot be moved.
"They can't just say, go to the hospital," said Levi Dunn, who has lived at the Budgetel for about nine months. "This is our hospital, this is where we live."
At $1,000 or more per month for a room, residents said the motel is still one of the cheapest options for extended stay places in the area. Residents reported paying between $1,000 and $1,400 monthly for a single room, depending on pets. On Tuesday, several said they worried about getting money they'd already paid for rent back.
"There won't be a refund," Smith said. "The hotel may say they're going to, but I've never seen a case where that happened."