What if the worst thing that ever happened to you turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to you?
We don't know if one or several or most of the people who had to vacate The Budgetel Inn in East Ridge in November would say that, but we were struck by a comment by Mackenzie Kelly, deputy director for the Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition.
"A lot of families have been housed that were just living in extended stay to extended stay to extended stay," she told Local 3 News. "Ultimately I think for a lot of folks, it gave them the opportunity for housing that they would not have gotten if they would have still been in the Budgetel."
Since that November day, the homeless coalition and multiple partners have been able to get 69 families — out of a total of 141 needing assistance to avoid homelessness — into permanent housing. Meanwhile, 56 families were able to find housing on their own.
That leaves perhaps 16 families still looking for permanent housing. They may be staying in hotels or left the area or may be on the street.
We hope most families, having been supported by various organizations, churches and governments since their ouster from the hotel, have been given — or accepted — the exact measure of help they needed. Yes, they needed a place to stay, but they also may have needed jobs, drug rehabilitation, counseling, help in dealing with their children or maybe just a nudge to get back in gear.
Photos shared with this page in November by Hamilton County District Attorney Coty Wamp, who shuttered the hotel at the request of East Ridge police, were sad to see. Trash littered the floors of some rooms. Sinks held dirty dishes, and open cans of food sat nearby. Empty bottles, food wrappers and cigarette packages clogged the crevices between beds and walls. Pet mats with fresh feces and urine stains carpeted an area near a sink in one room.
"These are things I won't ever unsee or unsmell," the district attorney told us at the time. "And I'll never forget the emotion I had when I saw toys lying next to feces. And childrens' blankets next to drug paraphernalia."
Another room, Wamp said, contained a dead dog.
If 141 families needed housing assistance, 141 different situations likely led them to the Budgetel, which, according to East Ridge law, could only house them for up to 120 consecutive days, or 210 total days in a year. But records showed some of the residents had been there consecutively from a half year to 19 months to two-plus years.
If hotel management allowed them to stay past what the law allowed, and East Ridge did not make sure its law was enforced, people without a lot of options would gladly stay. They wouldn't have needed to look for permanent housing, they might not have felt the need to find any, or better, employment, and they might not have had the impetus to kick a drug habit.
Undoubtedly, those descriptions didn't fit every family booted from Budgetel, but it would be unusual if it didn't fit some of them.
The hotel helped make the situation worse by keeping its log book away from East Ridge codes enforcers. The facility also was to have a security guard on duty 24-7, cars were required to have parking passes and no visitors were to be allowed after 9 p.m. Few or none of those were enforced regularly.
More than 2,000 calls from the hotel's address were made to Hamilton County 911 between January 2019 and when the residents were asked to vacate.
Eight months after an incident that was miserable for all concerned, from residents to law enforcement authorities to Wamp to hotel ownership to those who had to step in to help (but were glad to), the hotel is nearing a time when it could reopen. A May 8 health department inspection showed the hotel earned a 94 with only four minor violations. A walk-through by officials is scheduled before another court hearing on June 22.
We have no idea what all will be promised by Budgetel owners in order to open this time around. Since basically the same thing happened in 2014 with Superior Creek Lodge on the same site as Budgetel, we worry the pattern will repeat itself, especially if the hotel owners and East Ridge officials won't enforce their rules already in place.
If, on the other hand, the hotel and the city wanted to do the Lord's work, they could help connect guests who may tend toward become squatters with the services the ousted residents received since last fall. Because for some of the previous residents, while being upended was no picnic, it may have been the impetus that has guided them toward a more positive future.