An East Ridge motel housing an estimated 700 people shut down Wednesday morning, following a motion from the Hamilton County District Attorney's Office.
Starting around 7 a.m., officers from East Ridge and the Sheriff's Office told residents of the Budgetel Inn off Interstate 75 that they had around four hours to move out of their rooms.
"We don't have any idea where we're going to go," said Budgetel resident Tracey Myers, standing outside the hotel Wednesday. "We found out yesterday at three o'clock, and then this morning an officer knocked on our door and told us we had to get out."
The closure comes after District Attorney Coty Wamp asked a judge to temporarily shut down the property, citing a high volume of crime there in the past few years. Court documents show Hamilton County Judge Boyd Patterson signed off on the order Monday.
"The amount of law enforcement and first responder resources that this location requires is unreasonable and unsustainable," Wamp's office said in a statement Wednesday morning.
According to the district attorney's motion, four known sex offenders live at the Budgetel -- including three convicted of violence against children. The office estimated at least three dozen children live at the motel.
Most residents said they learned about the Budgetel's closing after school caseworkers reached out to parents with children living at the inn, advising them to look for another place to live. After word spread around the motel, around 40 residents protested the closure Tuesday evening outside East Ridge City Hall.
There have been more than 1,400 calls from the Budgetel to East Ridge police in the past three years, Chief Clint Uselton said in a statement Wednesday morning. That's around 35% of all calls to hotels or motels in East Ridge, Uselton said. The city has also received complaints of unsanitary and unlivable conditions in the motel's rooms, Wednesday's statement said.
The District Attorney's Office filed a motion Monday to temporarily shut down the motel, calling it a public nuisance.
Many of the recent calls were related to drug use, overdoses, assaults and disorderly conduct, according to court filings. So far in 2022, police have responded to eight overdose calls at the Budgetel, and two of those resulted in death. The district attorney's motion said police have also received complaints of Budgetel staff dealing narcotics, overbilling and stealing property from rooms. Nine nearby businesses also filed complaints with the office, the motion states.
"We never want to close any business, especially one that will affect families," East Ridge Mayor Brian Williams said in Wednesday's statement. "However, the increasing rate of crime at this location no longer made it safe for its residents and surrounding community."
Representatives from Hamilton County Schools were outside the motel Wednesday morning, handing out bag lunches, coats and other supplies to the 75 students who live there and their families.
Superintendent Justin Robertson was on-site, helping with distribution and setting up tents where families could meet with school officials. The district also provided buses as a way for families to keep warm and sent one to take children to school Wednesday.
"We were reaching out to (families), making sure that we're supporting them any way we can," Robertson said. "Helping them with moving supplies, food. It was cold this morning, making sure that kids have coats and helping them navigate the whole process."
Robertson said the district is scheduling meetings with families in the upcoming days as they navigate through the process of finding housing.
"Right now, I only care about getting a roof over my kids' heads," said Keith Thompson, who has lived at the Budgetel with his family for a year and a half.
Thompson said he had paid for his room through Friday, at a rate of $277.50 a week.
Uniformed officers spread out across the motel's four buildings Wednesday morning, knocking on doors and informing residents they had to be moved out by around 11 a.m. Residents were given a packet with phone numbers of local shelters, charities and homelessness services.
The last-minute notice didn't give local homelessness responders time to prepare for the influx of need, Mike Smith, executive director of the Chattanooga Regional Homelessness Coalition, said by phone Tuesday.
"Of course, we advocate for these things not to occur in the first place, but we just beg that people communicate with us so we can safely transfer people," Smith said.
An emergency hotel fundraiser by the coalition had raised more than $11,000 to help displaced residents find shelter by Wednesday afternoon.
Other organizations, including the Union Gospel Mission, set up outside the motel Wednesday morning to offer food and help.
"When we find out there's going to be how many folks homeless, we want to be there to do what we can really quick," said the Rev. Jon Rector of the mission. "I wish we had room to put all these people up, but we just don't have the facilities or the resources."
Officers blocked the road to the motel Wednesday morning, only allowing residents and those helping them pack.
In 2015, the city of East Ridge condemned the same property, then the Superior Creek Lodge, after an inspection found decaying wood and imminent danger of collapse. An Atlanta-based developer bought it for $1.4 million and spent $2 million renovating the motel before reopening it to guests in 2018.
Chattanooga City Council members voted in 2021 to rent 100 rooms in the Budgetel to house people experiencing homelessness, as part of an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. The plan was halted two days later, after East Ridge officials learned of it from media reports.
Later that year, the motel's owners attempted to rezone the property in order to convert it to apartments. East Ridge City Council members voted down that proposal in February.
Wamp's motion to close the motel included testimony from nine nearby business owners. Several said they'd had Budgetel residents panhandling or loitering in their parking lots, while others cited loud music and marijuana smoke coming from the property. Three of them said Budgetel residents had ripped a hole in a fence surrounding the motel.
Staff writer Carmen Nesbitt contributed to this story.